Friday, November 18, 2011

HFCS vs Sugar

Recently, on Google+, I posted a link to article called "Dr. Lustig on Sugar - the Cause of the Obesity Epidemic".  The point of Dr. Lustig's video is that fructose is the cause of the obesity epidemic.  The comments on that post indicated to me that there seems to be a number of people who believe that while High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) causes obesity, sucrose (commonly known as sugar) does not.  I think there is some confusion because HFCS has fructose in it's name and sucrose doesn't.  When studies come out incriminating fructose, the general public automatically makes the association with HFCS.

The truth is that sucrose is a molecule composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose.  In humans the sucrose molecule is broken down into separate glucose and fructose molecules by enzymes in the gut.  HFCS consists of glucose and fructose as already separate molecules.  This allows manufacturers to create different ratios of fructose and glucose for use in different products.  The common formulations are HFCS 42 - 42% fructose, HFCS 55 - 55% fructose and HFCS 90 - 90% fructose.  HFCS 42 is used in most products from baked goods to fruit drinks.  HFCS 55 is generally used in soft drinks.  HFCS 90 is used to mix with HFCS 42 to create HFCS 55. 

Since both sucrose and HFCS contain similar ratios of glucose and fructose, they should act similarly in the human body.    And indeed studies seem to indicate exactly that.   Ferder et al. concludes that sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup elicit similar short term responses. In McDevitt et al. they found "There was no significant difference in fat balance during controlled overfeeding with fat, fructose, glucose, or sucrose."  The American Medical Association's study says "it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose" 

In his video lecture "Sugar: The Bitter Truth", Dr. Lustig states "High-Fructose Corn Syrup, sucrose, it's a non issue, it's a wash. They're the same." and "High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are exactly the same. They're both equally bad, okay. They're both dangerous. They're poison." and in "Dr. Lustig on Sugar - the Cause of the Obesity Epidemic" he says "High-fructose corn syrup is no worse than standard table sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, the stuff you put in your coffee."

In his article "Is Sugar Toxic?" Gary Taubes says "marketing aside, the two sweeteners are effectively identical in their biological effects." and "Because each of these sugars ends up as glucose and fructose in our guts, our bodies react the same way to both, and the physiological effects are identical."

The one study, Bocarsly ME, et al., that claims to indicate otherwise has been criticised for errors in design, method, and analysis. In "HFCS Makes Rats Fat?" Marion Nestle states "the researchers did only two experiments that actually compared the effects of HFCS to sucrose on weight gain, and these gave inconsistent results. Their other experiments compared HFCS to chow alone."  Jennifer LaRue Huget says "Something about the way the study was written sounds as though researchers set out to link HFCS to obesity, not to determine whether such a link exists."  A more complete critique is given in "Is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) eviler than sugar?" in which the author makes the bold statement "This paper has an unusually rich number of errors in statistical design and analysis, selective picking of results that match what can only be a preferred outcome, and outright misrepresentation of the design and results. The senior authors, the editor handling the paper, the editor-in-chief, the reviewers, the Princeton University press release team, and any science blogs and journalists that uncritically parroted the press release should simply be ashamed."

Sucrose and HFCS are virtually identical in composition and seem to be identical in their metabolic effects.  Unless a credible study comes along to indicate otherwise, I have to think that they are equally to blame for the obesity epidemic.  I am not convinced, however, that they are the only cause, but that is a subject for a future post.

For reference, below is the approximate total fructose content of some other natural sweeteners.

  • Honey:  38%-50%
  • Maple syrup: 48%-50%
  • Agave nectar: 56%-92%

Now you might want to bring up the fact that HFCS is a product of a complex chemical process.  This does raise some genuine health concerns, like trace amounts of mercury, but that's not the subject of this post.  

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