The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is HFCS a menace or a scapegoat?

I've been poring over article after article, and still have not discovered sufficient evidence to support the theory that high fructose corn syrup is to blame for America's obesity problem.

Let me begin by explaining the recent study performed at Princeton University. The article: "High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels," written by Miriam E. Bocarsly, Elyse S. Powell, Nicole M. Avena and Bartley G. Hoebel, discusses the study's findings, supported by a grant from the US Public Health Service.

The theory was based on the finding that between 1970 and 1990, consumption of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) went up over 100%. This is, in part, because it's relatively inexpensive to produce, therefore it's cost effective for companies. It also helps baked goods have a longer shelf life. Because obesity has risen during that same time period, some scientists believe there is a direct correlation between the weight gain and the increased use of HFCS. Therefore, why the study was conducted.

In this study, used laboratory rats for both short term (male rats-2 month term) testing, and long term (male and female rats-6-7 month term). The results: after two months, the male rats fed HFCS gained "significantly more weight" than the ones fed sucrose, although they consumed a similar amount of rat chow. After a six-month period, the rats who'd had HFCS included in their diets also were found to have increased fats pads around their abdomens, while the control rats (the ones not fed the HFCS) did not.

Something else interesting...the rats fed both sucrose or HFCS voluntarily ate less of the rat chow, thus not increasing their calorie intake. Nature's way of preventing animal obesity! Although the animals consuming HFCS and reducing caloric intake still gained weight. Interesting, right?

Something else very interesting: the male rats gained more weight and at a more rapid weight than the females who consumed the same amount of HFCS. Although there is mention that the study was slightly different for males vs. females in that males had "ad libitum" access to chow (whenever they wanted it), while females only had 12-hour access to chow. Again, very interesting.

HFCS and sucrose have similar properties. Sucrose is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. HFCS is sold in two formulations. Either 42 percent fructose, or 55 percent fructose, the latter having 42 percent glucose and 3% higher saccharides (simple carbohydrates). I believe it is the 55% fructose formula that was used in the study.

Now before you go tossing out every HFCS containing item in your fridge and pantry, I want you to consider a couple of factors. First, this is only one study, and the one most highlighted in the media at this point of time. Other studies have proved inconclusive, and in every study mistakes can be made or numbers fudged. Not that I feel this is so with this particular study, but I take everything with a grain of salt. Second, these rats were on a controlled diet of HFCS. We, the consumer, are not. We have a choice of eating a muffin made with HFCS every day, or instead, once a week.

My point?

Perhaps high fructose corn syrup is metabolized differently than table sugar. I believe this to be true. Studies have indicated that fructose is absorbed further down the intestine than glucose. Because of this, the liver metabolizes most of the fructose. It is converted (and I'll spare you the scientific names and details) to what may possibly raise triglyceride levels. Again, there need to be more studies to prove all of this.

But what really needs to be said is that we Americans, land of the Supersize-Me, need to be responsible for what goes into our mouths. If you're eating more baked goods than you are vegetables and fruits, drinking more soda than you are water (or tea), and munching on Doritos at your desk everyday, you're going to increase your waistline, whether or not anything you consume has HFCS. That is, unless you have a thyroid problem, or some other situation where you can not gain weight. But for the majority of us...we consume everything placed in front of us at a restaurant even though we know that plate has enough calories for at least two meals. (Another reason why waistlines have increased since 1970. (Please read this article for a study on restaurant portions: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v12/n3/full/oby200464a.html)

So I feel blaming high fructose corn syrup for America's obesity woes is harsh. Yes, too many foods have high fructose corn syrup in them. But they do enhance the flavor of the product, and we can keep the item longer in a pantry...a must for those of us who prefer to grocery shop every two weeks. There is a place for such a product. But the products it's in shouldn't take the place of fresh greens and sweet fruit. But then again, neither should consuming products made from table sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Now you know more about the study. Do your own, and decide what foods are right for you.

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