Sweet Seduction: The Bottom Line on Corn Syrup

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High Fructose Corn Syrup is Healthy in Moderation…

That’s the claim of the Corn Refiners Association, put forth in TV ads (and in spoofs of those ads on Saturday Night Live). According to them, “Whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar.” And yet, there’s a host of soda companies who beg to differ. They sweeten their beverages with “real sugar” and position themselves as all-natural alternatives to drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. So, who should you believe – the kindly lady meandering through the cornfield in the Corn Refiner’s ads or the groups who maintain that high fructose corn syrup is a unique nutritional evil–responsible for the nation’s obesity epidemic as well as a host of other ills?

High fructose corn syrup is, in fact, chemically very similar to table sugar (which is chemically known as sucrose). Sucrose consists of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, while high fructose corn syrup consists of about 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. Both have about four calories per gram. And while high fructose corn syrup (which is also called corn sugar) is a manufactured concoction, it is made from corn without using any artificial ingredients, so it meets the FDA requirements for being called “natural.”

“Arguably, there is no difference in the way our bodies metabolize the two sweeteners,” says One Medical Group nutritionist Karyn Duggan. Both contain fructose, and when fructose is digested it has to be metabolized by the liver. “But if you have an excess of fructose in your diet, it will put a tremendous stress on the liver,” says Duggan. And because of the unique way fructose is processed by the digestive system, it alters the body’s well-orchestrated feedback loop and suppresses the release of leptin–the hormone that signals to the brain that you’re full. Without releasing leptin, your brain doesn’t get the “I’m full” message. And that, not surprisingly, can lead to overeating.

Sugar, Sugar Everywhere

Logically, high fructose corn syrup is no more likely to cause obesity  (and related diseases) than any other form of sugar. The real difference may be its ubiquity. “High fructose corn syrup goes hand in hand with the increase in highly processed foods we eat too much of,” says Duggan. If you read product labels, you’ll find it in the obvious places–like soft drinks and sweet snacks–but also in everything from canned fruit and yogurt to hamburger buns and ketchup. In fact, unless you only buy organic or make all your food from scratch, it can be incredibly hard to avoid consuming high fructose corn syrup.

And getting back to the original claim, what does “moderation” really mean? “We can tolerate most things in moderation,” says Duggan. “It’s chronic exposure that is really the problem.” According to Duggan, Americans consume, on average, 75 to 100 grams of added sugar–that’s 15 to 20 teaspoons–per day. “That is not moderation, and our bodies have not evolved to handle that,” she says.

The Expert Advice: Limit Your Intake of All Added Sweeteners

“It’s not about making high fructose corn syrup the bad guy,” warns Duggan. “The culprit in an unhealthy diet is never just one ingredient.” Any type of sugar–whether it comes from corn or not–in excess is unhealthy. Overindulging in empty calories, like those found in soft drinks and junk food, is the leading cause of obesity (and obesity-related diseases) in this country. The American Heart Association guidelines urge women to consume no more than 100 calories of added sugars a day (the equivalent of 25 grams).  Men should keep it under 150 calories of sugar per day or about 35 grams. “The solution isn’t just to choose one type of sugar over another,” says Duggan. “It’s about making educated, sensible choices–seeking out the foods that will make you feel your best.”

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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