Does High Fructose Corn Syrup Cause Obesity?

By Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.

High fructose corn syrup also called corn sugar is a popular ingredient that is a common sugar added to lots of processed foods and sodas.  High fructose corn syrup was invented in 1966 in Japan.  It was introduced to the American market in 1975.

In the mid 1970’s the USDA, AMA and AHA all called for the reduction of dietary fat because high fat diets helped to increase the risk of heart disease. When the fat was taken out of many recipes in the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup replaced the fat because of the much improved taste.  The added carbohydrate increased the sweetness thus masking the fat content that was removed. High fructose corn syrup increased the palatability in these low fat high carbohydrate foods.  Remember fat-free brownies – 250 calories per brownie but NO fat?

High fructose corn syrup initially seemed chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose). Both contain fructose and glucose. All added sugar increases the risk of weight gain, increases triglyceride levels, and increases in blood sugar which can a; increase your risk of developing heart disease. Each gram of sugar and each gram of high fructose corn syrup has 4 calories.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Found In Every Type of Food

High fructose corn syrup in many cases has less to do with sweetening of a product but more to do with providing stability to a product. High fructose corn syrup provides greater stability in acidic carbonated sodas than sucrose, so flavors remain consistent and stable over the entire shelf-life of the product. For example, in baked goods, high fructose corn syrup gives a pleasing brown crust to breads and cakes, contributes fermentable sugars to yeast-raised products, reduces sugar crystallization during baking for soft-moist textures, and enhances flavors of fruit fillings. High fructose corn syrup added to yogurt provides fermentable sugars, enhances fruit and spice flavors, controls moisture to prevent separation, and regulates tartness.  High fructose corn syrup added spaghetti sauces, ketchup and condiments enhances flavor and balance.  In addition, high fructose corn syrup protects the firm texture of canned fruits and reduces freezer burn in frozen fruits.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Metabolized Like Alcohol

Recently, at the 8th Annual Nutrition and Health Conference in San Francisco, CA, Robert Lusting, M.D., with the Division of Endocrinology of the Department of Pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, discussed the fact that high fructose corn syrup is actually metabolized like alcohol because of its structure.  Earlier research suggested high fructose corn syrup was metabolized like sucrose but this is not the case. Dr. Lusting’s research suggests that chronic fructose exposure promotes metabolic syndrome particularly in children. In addition, chronic fructose exposure can cause hypertension, myocardial infarction, dyslipidemia, pancreatitis, obesity, hepatic dysfunction, and fetal insulin resistance. To see what Dr. Lusting has to say check this You Tube video out – Sugar the Bitter Truth!

Comparison of High Fructose Corn Syrup to Trans Fat Research

This enlightening research has been under heavy scrutiny because high fructose corn syrup is used in many products. In fact, many health professionals from physicians to dietitians have embraced the idea that HFCS is no different than using sugar. But I liken this transient endorsement to the margarine/trans fat controversy in the 1990s.

University of Maryland premier lipid researcher, Mary Enig, PhD, determined in the late 1970s, that trans fat was very destructive in our blood vessels. Trans fat was created when hydrogen was added to oil to turn the oil into soft margarine that was easily spreadable. This margarine was used in all types of prepared products. Trans fat was found to help promote the plaque build-up in blood vessels thus increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Margarine companies as well as many health professionals did not seriously consider trans fat as being a health risk.  In fact, much of Dr. Enig’s research was actually buried. (I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland when Dr. Enig was doing her research. I knew Dr. Enig personally.  She told me that the biggest opponent to her research was margarine companies and they lobbied against her research very loudly and fought to keep her research out of the news).

Finally, in 1992, Dr. Enig’s research and extreme insistence that trans fat was destructive to our health started to receive some interest.  Fast forward to 2006, the USDA finally decided that trans fat was indeed a health problem and food labels began to indicate the trans fat content of products. The recommendation from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health is that Americans should eat as little trans fat as possible. In fact, restaurants are now the target of getting the trans fat out of their menu choices as well. Will HFCS be the next target for food labels and restaurant choices?

As a registered dietitian since 1973, I look at today’s obese problem and it’s apparent that obesity is different today than even 20 years ago. Some people have so much fat on their bodies, it’s hard to figure out how they can actually eat that many extra calories but with Dr. Lusting’s research, it may gives us some real insight into the metabolic differences that HFCS has, just like the differences that were seen with trans fat. Who knew?

Fructose vs High Fructose Corn Syrup

While it’s true that fruit and fruit juice both contain fructose, it appears that the combination of fructose with dietary fiber which is found in the actual fruit rather than the fruit juice helps to deter the same metabolic catastrophe that is seen in high fructose corn syrup. Juicing the actual fruit and drinking the juice with the fiber intact would help to decrease the metabolic problems with HFCS.

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Exercise

Dr. Lusting suggested 60 minutes of daily exercise could help decrease the metabolic problems associated with a high intake of HFCS. But according to current research, less Americans are exercising daily even though exercise can decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Removing High Fructose Corn Syrup will Increase the Costs of School Lunch

Check this resource out and you will learn that almost every item on your typical school lunch meal contains some HFCS except hummus, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and milk. Obviously, removing HFCS from the school menu completely will be next to impossible but by adding some type of exercise program each school day not only would help to alleviate the metabolic problems associated with HFCS but will also help the children to be healthier by burning calories and excess energy that is built up during the school day. In addition, it has been well documented that exercise helps to increase one’s ability to concentrate and learn more.


America’s Sugar Intake Out of Control

The current intake of sugar in America is 22 teaspoons (tsp) per day. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends women consume no more than 100 calories a day (25 grams of sugar) of added sugar and men should consume no more than 150 calories a day (37.5 grams of sugar) per day or less. This AHA recommendation actually comes out to about 6 tsp of added sugar for women and 9 tsp for men.

Consumer Tips for Decreasing the High Fructose Corn Syrup in Your Diet

Tips: 1. avoid sugary sodas. 2. Choose breakfast cereals carefully. 3. Eat less processed & packaged foods like cookies and cakes. 4. Snack on fresh fruits, fresh veggies, & whole grain crackers instead of candies and cookies. Author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto Michael Pollan suggested, “Eat all the junk food you like as long as you prepare them yourself. We need to un-refine our refined foods.”

Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N., is a registered dietitian with a Master’s Degree in clinical nutrition.  The former publisher of Kentuckiana HealthFitness Magazine, Kentuckiana Healthy Woman magazine and radio show host of Health News You Can Use, Barbara has over 30 years of experience in promoting healthy lifestyles to consumers.  Barbara worked as Nutrition Consultant to the Navy SEALs (8 years) and the University of Louisville Athletic Department (10 years). Barbara has private practice, DayByDay Nutrition,, where she counsels clients on weight loss, cholesterol management, performance nutrition and an array of other medical issues.  Visit Barbara’s new website which is an on-line health & wellness magazine, Barbara writes nutrition and health columns for as well as a weekly nutrition column for the Southeast Outlook. She also designs and presents employee wellness programs to small and large businesses. Barbara is a runner, cyclist, hiker and a mother and grandmother to 11 grandchildren.    



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