It is the mission of Monroe Real Training to assist others in making healthier lifestyle choices, which includes helping clients choose healthier diets. In this article I will discuss the basics of high fructose corn syrup and the impact sugar is having on public health.
High fructose corn syrup began being mass produced in the 1970s. Since this time our nation has observed a dramatic increase in the number of people who are overweight, obese and morbidly obese. Is the correlation of high fructose corn syrup and obesity rates a cause and effect phenomena or is there more to the story? Scientists are still in disagreement about whether high fructose corn syrup causes more health problems than table sugar, but scientists and physicians are in agreement that consuming too many calories is a bad thing. Interestingly, recent work has provided rather compelling evidence that high sugar diets promote increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels, indicators of later heart problems.
What exactly is sugar? Sugars/carbohydrates are essential for life, providing energy, the basic building blocks for other molecules including DNA, dietary fiber and a mechanism for the immune system to recognize “self” molecules from molecules found on invading cells like bacteria. Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides, which means a monomer (one unit) of a carbohydrate molecule (saccharide). Carbohydrates are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and many formed fused rings, including glucose and fructose. Glucose and other monosaccharides join together to form long and branched carbohydrate molecules. In plants, glucose forms starch, which is used for energy, and cellulose, which is used by the plants for structure and is used by us as dietary fiber. We store our glucose in a large molecule known as glycogen, which can be broken down into glucose monomers when we need to make more energy. So, what are the sugar molecules found in our food? Table sugar is a disaccharide (meaning two monomers) of a glucose molecule bonded to a fructose molecule. Another name for table sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is considered sweeter than glucose but less sweet than fructose. As a side note, laboratory rats love sucrose, which has been the basis for some addiction studies. This will be the topic of a future article. Natural food products such as fruit contain a mixture of glucose, fructose and sucrose. Because fructose is sweet, companies like to add fructose to processed foods, which is often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is actually a mixture of fructose (approximately 55%) and glucose (approximately 45%).
Does the body process fructose differently from glucose, and is fructose worse for you than glucose? The answer to those questions is currently unclear. The high fructose corn syrup issue is still highly debated in the scientific community. It is difficult to perform clinical studies that examine the role of fructose, glucose, sucrose or high fructose corn syrup in isolation from one another and to obtain a large number of people to use in studies. Nonetheless, there is overwhelming agreement that eating too many calories is detrimental to our health, and recent work has shown that glucose, fructose and sucrose can increase triglyceride and cholesterol levels. These studies have been performed in both humans and rodents, providing credibility to the idea that sugar may be one of the biggest culprits of poor public health. I challenge each of you to reduce your sugar intake and see if your cholesterol levels are reduced. We could conduct our own clinical trial at Monroe Real Training.
The next question is, how do we lower our sugar intake? I think the key is to reduce the amount of processed foods we intake and eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables. Let’s be honest here. Most things that contain high fructose corn syrup are nasty. Food snobs like myself generally do not find foods that come in a box, bag or other package to be appealing. Our food should be in a form that is recognizable from how it came from the ground. I have a system for limiting the amount of junk food I eat and have used this system for many years. I admit that there are a few things found in the center aisles of the grocery store that I like, and it makes me happy to eat them. Eating too much of it though takes away the gratification I experience when I do consume junk food and makes my physically sick. My system of junk food regulation is simply called “the unit system”. I allow myself “one unit” of bad food a day at a maximum. There are many days I do not eat any junk food. A unit includes a can of soda, a cookie, a candy bar, a scoop of ice cream, a donut or a piece of cake. By allowing myself only one unit a day maximum, I save my unhealthy food for something that tastes good and will make me happy at the right time. I recommend planning where and when you will consume your unit each day. For example, if you are working late, you may want to reserve your junk food allowance for a can of soda later in the day. If you know you are going to a movie, you may want to reserve your unit as a small bag of popcorn. Units need to be savored and held to a high standard. Do not waste it on something that is not worth it. For example, if you are forced at your workplace to celebrate everyone’s birthday, discretely discard any units that do not taste good. Take one bite and then tactfully tell everyone that you need to return to your office to make a pressing phone call and that you will eat the cake in there. Save your allowance for when you really want them.
As for sugar from natural sources (i.e. raw fruits), my personal recommendation is to keep eating fruit in high quantities. Our sugar intake should come from fruit and not from foods that add sugar for flavor. By eliminating processed foods, we can consume fruit without eating high levels of sugar. Fruit contains many nutrients that other foods cannot provide and it is high in dietary fiber (cellulose). Consuming fruit will make your digestive track happy and others will envy how regulated you are. Try eliminating processed foods and see if you feel better. If you’re up to the challenge, see if reducing your sugar intake reduces your cholesterol levels in six months or a year.
Bray, G.A. (2013) Energy and fructose from beverages sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup pose a health risk for some people. Adv Nutr. 4:220-5.
de Castro, U.G., Dos Santos, R.A., Silva, M.E., de Lima, W.G., Campagnole-Santos, M.J., Alzamora, A.C. (2013) Age-dependent effect of high-fructose and high-fat diets on lipid metabolism and lipid accumulation in liver and kidney of rats. Lipids Health Dis. 12:136.
Feinman, R.D. & Fine, E.J. (2013) Fructose in perspective. Nutr Metab. 10:45.