Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Latest Study on High Fructose Corn Syrup

There's a couple of articles circling about (I like facebook for this, my friends post stuff they are concerned about and I get a little free pulse of the population) about high fructose corn syrup, which for the life of me, I can't figure out why people consider it to the the bane of their existence.

Of all the sweeteners to worry about, a sweetener made out of naturally occurring molecules like fructose and glucose, seems hardly a problem, it should be falling neatly in the "its natural" category since both sugars are found naturally. But apparently, if you dont serve the sugars in their natural form (much like table sugar BTW) it becomes the bane of humanity and is the cause all of our health problems.

This attitude is evidenced by the media's response to a recent study.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Proven to Cause Human Obesity! Proven! Proven I say!
Child diabetes blamed on food sweetener We have found the answer!
For the first time – Scientists Link Fructose to Obesity, Diabetes in HUMANS That right folks, for the first time ever, sugar has been linked to obesity. Who would have known?
Fructose: Cause Of Childhood Diabetes That's right folks it's THE cause
How Sweet It Isn’t: High Fructose Corn Syrup Proven to Cause Human Obesity Proven!

A little more reasoned approach came from Grist only after the author of the article got knocked in the head by one of the study's authors.

I make a little fun because its a rare instance in science when something is actually proven to be so. Usually what we get is evidence for or against a hypothesis. That very evidence is usually recorded in probabilities. As we will soon see, this is also the case here.

Every one of these headlines references a single study that recently came out. As a responsible consumer of media information, who wants ot have an informed opinion onm this topic, it is your job to go to the source rather than just imbibe the predigested conclusions thrown at you by the advertising hungry media outlets.

Here it is.
Go read.
Then lets discuss.

Stanhope et al, rounded up 16 people (this makes this study extremely small) in a first of its kind study (which means the results of this study have yet to be verified or validated by anyone) which took a crack at evaluating the effects of one kind of sweetener over another. Its basically trying to get rid of the concern that we heard so often from the smoking lobby that results based on animal testing don't necessarily apply to humans.

When you read the abstract, know that I am in the same position as you about all the sciency sounding multisyllabic words the get thrown around. I honestly have no idea what they mean, nor will I go get a medical degree to find out. More on this later.

Let's start with the basics. Skeptoid has already gone over a lot of the hullabaloo of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), so I wont repeat a lot of it here.

I found this list of sweeteners and their relative sweetness. I checked the numbers around the internet and found it to be accurate. Let me just put out some of the important ones here:

Sugar SweetnessCalories
Glucose 0.83.75
Sucrose 1 3.94
Fructose 1.754*
Aspartame (Nutrasweet) 180 N/A
Saccharine (Sweet n' Low) 300N/A
Sucralose (Splenda) 600 N/A

In this chart, sucrose, which is table sugar is given a 'sweetness' of 1. You can see that glucose is less sweet than table sugar. Fructose is 1.75 times more sweet. The artificial sweeteners are amazingly sweet, which is why they are in low calorie drink, you need very very little of them to achieve the same sweetness (never mind that I think they taste like crap).

Glucose, fructose and sucrose are naturally occurring sugars. sucrose is a molecule that is simply a glucose molecule bonded weakly to a fructose molecule. When you eat table sugar, the first bond to go is the one holding these together, leaving your stomach with fructose and glucose separately, in about equal propostions.

  • Corn syrup is pure glucose, it is not as sweet as table sugar.
  • High fructose corn syrup is called that because it actually has fructose in it
  • Glucose is a chemical you body readily converts giving you a blast of energy (or conversion to fat)
  • Fructose is an atomically identical molecule that your body does not digest readily, giving you a more sustained flow of energy (or conversion to fat)
  • Fructose, in pure form, is not a sweetener that we use in any product.
  • High fructose corn syrup comes in a variety of blends of glucose and fructose. The most common blend HFCS-55 is about 55% fructose, matching the sweetness and calories of table sugar. It will deliver about the same amount of fructose to your body as table sugar does once you have ingested it.
OK, I think we have enough background to discuss this paper now.

Lets start witht he sugar intake: from the study

To assess the relative effects of these dietary sugars during sustained consumption in humans, overweight and obese subjects consumed glucose- or fructose-sweetened beverages providing 25% of energy requirements for 10 weeks

Since the caloric intake of glucose and fructose is about the same (4 kcal/gram - note kcal is what we call "calories"), these folks drank beverages with about the same amount of sweetener, in grams. That means that one group had drinks that were over twice as sweet as the other group.

The population of the study were all similar in size, weight, and other aspect. There is no contention there. All the participants were an average age of around 54. There were some slight differences between the males and females, but these were matched pretty well in both groups. One of the groups (male, fructose) had a significantly lower starting LDL level, but that may not matter with respect to the results, lets see.

We'll just accept the procedure, although if I really doubted the veracity of the study, which I don't, this would also be something to delve deeper into. The results after the 10 week period came in as follows:

  • No differences in blood pressure between the two groups
  • Both groups gained a similar amount of weight (slightly more for glucose)
  • Both groups gained a similar amount of body fat (again, the glucose groups scored higher)
  • Both groups gained a similar amount in waist circumference (Fructose winning here but by very little)

These facts are extremely important when trying to assess the veracity of a hypothesis like "fructose causes obesity).

The main differences, and they are significant, is in where the fat appeared. The fructose group showed significantly more abdominal fat. Plus the fructose group showed far higher amounts of LDL cholesterol (the bad one), and a variety of other things that are bad for you. Again most of this list is beyond my knowledge, but I accept the conclusion that most of the bad actors here are higher in the fructose group.

So lets be clear here: there is no doubt that pure fructose is not a good or healthy sweetener. It is well known that glucose and fructose are different molecule that are metabolized differently, by different mechanisms, with excess energy stored differently. This study neither contradicts this data, nor does it provide any evidence that sweeteners the combine both glucose and sucrose are any different from one another. This study is not the one that came to any of these conclusions first. There is a large body of evidence supporting this. This study weaned out some specific responses that the body has when overfed these sweeteners and proposed a metabolism model for them.

The authors themselves explain that they did not study sweeteners as they are used in our food:

Foods and beverages in the US are typically sweetened with sucrose (50% glucose and 50% fructose) or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is usually 45%–58% glucose and 42%–55% fructose, rather than pure glucose or fructose.

The authors have also previously reported that they have not found a difference in the response to the sweeteners that are actually consumed by the public.

We have reported in a short-term study that the 23-hour postprandial TG profiles in male subjects consuming 25% energy as HFCS (55% fructose) or sucrose were elevated to a degree similar to that observed when pure fructose–sweetened beverages were consumed.

So where is the evidence, as the media articles claimed, that this study has something to do with HFCS and childhood obesity?

This study says nothing about childhood obesity since all participants were an average of 54 years old.
This study says nothing about the use of HFCS since it only studied intake of pure glucose and pure fructose
This study says nothing about the superiority of table sugar or honey to high fructose corn syrup since none of these sweeteners were tested, alone or against each other.

Lets look at the TimesOnline article since that was the first one out:

Scientists have proved for the first time that a cheap form of sugar used in thousands of food products and soft drinks can damage human metabolism and is fuelling the obesity crisis

No, they did nothing of the sort. They showed that pure fructose, with the exact same caloric intake as pure glucose provide similar gain in weight. They showed that there are differences in metabolic response to sweeteners in a form that on one currently consumes.

It [fructose] has increasingly been used as a substitute for more expensive types of sugar in yoghurts, cakes, salad dressing and cereals. Even some fruit drinks that sound healthy contain fructose

Couldnt be more wrong. HFCS is substituting sucrose, which has the same amount of fructose in it. "Natural" fruit drinks (whatever that means) ought to have fructose in it, since fructose occurs naturally in fruit.

researchers at the University of California who conducted the trial, said the levels of weight gain among the fructose consumers would be greater over the long term

Unless the TimesOnline interviewed them and failed to provide quotation marks and source, this is simply a baseless claim and not in the study at all.

Fructose bypasses the digestive process that breaks down other forms of sugar. It arrives intact in the liver where it causes a variety of abnormal reactions, including the disruption of mechanisms that instruct the body whether to burn or store fat

This may be true, so what? No one eats pure fructose as a sweetener. Its completely irrelevant.

what is going on here? A huge logical fallacy called equivocation. Fructose is bad in high quantities, therefore high fructose corn syrup is bad in any quantity. They are simply not the same thing, and as I have pointed out, there is no reason to believe that HFCS would do anything different in your body than table sugar would.

Now let's check out the alternet article:

We finally have the smoking corn cob, as it were: the studyprocessed-food foes have been waiting for, indicating that highfructose corn syrup may be the cause of the huge upswing in childhood obesity and diabetes

I dont really know anything about alternet, but if this is how they put together their information, I think we can pretty much discount anything they say. This is a digestion of a predigested article. They dont link to the study, they link to the times article! the is no smoking gun here, there is no evidence to support the idea the HFCS alone, has anything more to do with obesity than sugar does.

The rise in childhood diabetes and obesity roughly corresponds to the period of time in which food processors started using high fructose corn syrup with such prevalence.

And here we have out second largest logical fallacy of the day: Correlation-causation fallacy. Know what? Obesity also corresponds to the increased used of smartphones, what is your point? It's not the HFCS, its the calories. Average caloric intake of american has increased year over year since the 70's. It doesnt matter where you get your calories from, its how many you have. It especially doesnt matter since, and I sound like a record here, HFCS has the same amounts of fructose and glucose and table sugar.

Further, this study says nothing about childhood anything.

But this new finding is the first involving humans, and its results point to a different truth: high fructose corn syrup can actually damage human metabolism.

Bzzt. Sorry, it specifically does not say that. It says nothing about high fructose corn syrup, this is what happens when you get your information predigested from someone else who is trying to make headlines.

The control group of volunteers on the same diet, but with glucose sugar replacing fructose, did not have these problems.

Fine, but both groups got equally fatter... which is what obesity is. In fact, the glucose folks scored higher there.

Here is the rub on the whole study, the part that gets me the worst with all this nonsense reporting. HFCS is sweeter than glucose. Twice as sweet. If we banned sweeteners with fructose in it, then all we would have left are artificial sweeteners, glucose, and some sweeteners that are even less sweet than glucose.

People don't care if its fructose or glucose in the cookies and soda. They crave the sweetness or the taste that the sweetness makes. If you get rid of the fructose, then you have to put in twice the calories to get the same sweetness with glucose. Even if we just used sucrose, you would still need 75% more sugar and calories to acheive the same sweetness.

Wanna see obesity? Lets try that experiment.

* I was unable to find an exact energy count for fructose, but most sources said 4 calories, virtually the same as glucose and sucrose

File Under: , ,