The truth about high fructose corn syrup

High fructose corn syrup is syrup made by harvesting corn for its starch, commonly used as a sweetener for beverages.

On one hand, some people are convinced that HFCS is the poison of society, leading everyone to their certain, metabolic doom. On the other hand, you have companies insisting that “corn sugar is the same as cane sugar, and is fine in moderation”.

What is it?

While the starch itself isn’t really sweet, it is made up of linked glucose molecules, which are. As a result, to get to the sweetness in the corn sugar, the starch is treated with enzymes that break it into smaller fragments such as maltose, which can once again be broken down to glucose. 

If you’re wondering where the fructose comes in, that’s because it’s not actually there yet. While the starch is pretty much a long sugar chain, the only sugar present is glucose.

However, the only difference between glucose and fructose is in the molecular structure – the atomic components are exactly the same. Glucose and fructose both share the C6H12O6 chemical formula, but glucose forms a six membered ring with a single branch point coming off of it at the fifth carbon, while fructose forms a five membered ring that has two branches, one at the first and one at the fifth carbon. So, converting glucose to fructose is a matter of treating it with yet another enzyme to change its configuration.

The end result is a sugar mix that comprises largely of glucose and fructose, known as high fructose corn syrup.

Calorically, glucose and fructose are the same, at approximately four calories a gram. What’s different between glucose and fructose is how they’re processed in metabolism.

Fructose, unlike glucose, is absorbed in a non-sodium dependent process, after which it is converted into glucose by the body or passed into general circulation. In small amounts, fructose helps to increase liver glycogen (the storage form of glucose in the body) synthesis. However, in large amounts, fructose ends up providing an unregulated source of carbons for liver fat genesis, especially since fructose is more easily converted into triglycerides than glucose is. In addition, fructose, unlike glucose, does not stimulate insulin secretion, most likely because the pancreas cells responsible for insulin secretion lack a transporter to register the presence of fructose in the body.

As a result, high levels of fructose consumption are less regulated and a greater stress on the metabolic pathways than similar levels of glucose. On a related note, lower insulin levels in the blood also associates with lower leptin levels.

Leptin is a hormone that signals for fullness, meaning that fructose is functionally less filling than glucose and other, more regulated sugars. As a result, people who eat high levels of fructose will tend to eat more before feeling full, thus taking in more calories than necessary, that will ultimately be stored as fat deposits in the body.

Where is it found?

High fructose corn syrup is a major contributor to the content of sweetened beverages, which are generally not nutrient dense but are incredibly popular. Unfortunately, it is harder for the body to determine how much energy a liquid provides than it is to determine the same caloric count in solid forms. That means that in the case of high fructose corn syrup sweetened drinks, not only are people drinking copious amounts of non-filling sugars, but they’re also not realizing when they’ve had enough, and thus likely to take in even more. (1)

On another note, a 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that there is a negative correlation between free fructose consumption – like what occurs in High Fructose Corn Syrup – and LDL size, meaning that higher levels of free fructose tend to associate with smaller LDL particle size, which in turn correlates with obesity.

Also, obesity in children tends to correlate with fructose consumption from sweetened snacks and beverages, usually sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, more so than fructose consumption from fruits, most likely because fruits have beneficial vitamins that can signal satiety to the body, as well as fiber that can slow down the absorption of fructose into the bloodstream. (2)

Overall, fructose in the metabolism is fine – and even beneficial – in moderation (for an example, think about the health benefits of fruits and honey, where you can find naturally occurring fructose).

However, fructose in large amounts is shown to be detrimental to health, overall leading to overeating, increased fat storage, and decreased LDL particle size associated with obesity, along with other general metabolic stresses. Because of this, high fructose corn syrup, which is high in fructose like the name indicates, draws its potential health problems from it’s prevalence in the market.

For one thing, high fructose corn syrup is one of the most popular sweeteners used today due to its production cheapness and it’s ability to give foods a longer shelf life. Because of this, it’s used frequently and in large amounts that cause stress on metabolism and facilitate fat storage.

Also, since high fructose corn syrup has little value in terms of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, there is nothing in the syrup to offset the unregulated metabolism of the fructose.

Ultimately, high fructose corn syrup is probably not going to be the end of humanity as we know it. It’s almost the same as regular sucrose sugar, after all, except that the glucose and fructose are already separate in high fructose corn syrup.

That being said, the fructoses in the syrup have their own inherent problems, independent of the calorie count that most people are concerned with, and should not be over-consumed.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to live healthier, you should avoid it.

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