High Fructose Corn Syrup – What’s the Story?

(Copyright by and used with permission from Todd R. Kueny, Sr., who blogs at Just Got Lucky.)

We’ve all heard about the evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – its the cause of Type 2 diabetes and nearly everything else bad like obesity.

But what’s the real story…?

Before we can talk about HFCS we have to understand something about sugars.  Sugar is not what you have on the kitchen table – “sugar” as we use the term here means something very specific.  Sugars are actually a class of things called “saccharides” and saccharides are carbohydrates.

Book CoverCarbohydrates are compounds made of carbon (C), oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H) where there is a two to one (2:1) ration of hydrogen to oxygen.  There are four kinds of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides.  Our concern here will be with monosaccharides and disaccharides because these two groups are components of what we commonly call “sugar”.

Monosaccharides are the most basic form of carbohydrate.  Monosaccharides make up the the simplest form of sugar.  They are usually colorless, water-soluble, and crystalline solids.  The most important monosaccharide is glucose.

Glucose is critical to life because it is the product of either photosynthesis or cell respiration and it provides energy to living cells.  Starches and cellulose are composed of glucose.  Glucose is also called D-glucose, grape sugar and dextrose.  Its chemical structure is C6H12O6.  The exact details of this are not important here. The presence of glucose in the blood is reduced as cells in your body consume glucose for energy when insulin is released by your pancreas.

Fructose is the second monosaccharide we are concerned with.  Fructose, or fruit sugar, is commonly found in fruit, honey, and a variety of other natural sources.  Its chemical structure is C6H12O6, just like, glucose, but the atoms are arranged in a different structure.  What’s important here is that your body treats fructose differently from glucose because the atoms have a different structure.

Finally, we are concerned with sucrose.  Sucrose is what we call “table sugar” and its what’s in the sugar bowl.   It is made up of one molecule of glucose joined to one molecule of fructose.  Fructose is a disaccharide – “di” meaning two sugars.

Given all of this we can now talk about HFCS in a meaningful way.

HFCS was created in 1957 and commercialized in the lat 1960’s by Dr. Y. Takasaki at the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Japan.  Since that time HFCS has steadily replaced sucrose in commercial foods.

Today HFCS is implicated in everything bad: obesity and diabetes primarily.  But is that a bum wrap?

To answer this we have to look at how human bodies process mono- and disaccharides.

Glucose is basically absorbed directly into the blood though the small intestines by something called SGLUT-1 (see this at bottom).  This is why consuming glucose gives that instant “sugar high”.  What’s important here is that the glucose moves from the digested food in the intestines into the blood stream directly – there pathway is basically automatic.  This is unlike the transmission by GLUT-4 of glucose in the blood into cells in response to insulin.  There is no “governor” on the SGLUT-1 process – the more glucose you consume the more your blood glucose will increase.

Glucose is stored in your liver and the pancreas monitors your blood glucose level.  If it increases insulin is released so that you body will take up the glucose.  If it decreases the pancreas tells your liver to release more glucose.  (Something interesting that I cannot find is what happens if you push too much glucose into your cells, how much energy can they store??)

Fructose is processed differently.  Fructose by itself is handled by GLUT-2 and GLUT-5 and is transported into your body such that it passes directly to the liver.  Your liver is the only part of your body that can process fructose – unlike glucose which nearly every cell can process.  In the case sucrose (with one glucose and one fructose) processing occurs in parallel for both, i.e., the bond between the two is split and  both are more readily absorbed (see this).

Too much fructose can cause liver disease because the liver prioritizes the conversion of fructose to glycogen above all other functions.  According to thisthe livers of the rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic.

So fructose alone is bad for the liver and consuming too much fructose regularly will destroy it just like drinking too much.

On to HFCS…

HFCS is made up of fructose and glucose in varying proportions based on taste.  So for Coca Cola, as an example, which uses HFCS, the two (glucose and fructose) are mixed to provide the same perceived taste as sucrose (which was used prior to the 1970’s).  In general HFCS is at least 45% fructose all the way up to 90% fructose.

So what about doctors saying that too much fruit is bad because of the fructose?  Well, if we examine, for example, the fructose in pineapple we see its about 1% of the pineapple.  According to this two apples have as much fructose as one can of soda.  What no one seems to understand is that in the case of the pineapple 99% of the pineapple is “other things for your body to digest”. So these doctors are basically idiots – raw fruit is good for you.

Now let’s consider soft drinks as an example of manufactured food.

Each ounce of soft drink contains about 30 cc’s of liquid so a 12 ounce drink (one can of soda) would be 360 cc’s of liquid water or 360 grams of water.  In that water might be up to 30 grams of fructose according to this.  (In 360 grams of pineapple there would be approximately 3.6 grams of fructose which is almost 1/10th the fructose by weight of what’s in a can of soda.  The precision may be off somewhat here because of how sugar dissolves and so forth but you get the idea.)

Now when you eat pineapple you get lots of other good things for your body to digest along with the fructose.

With the soft drink you get nothing but water.

Now one more piece of interesting data is that there is an obesity epidemic in Australia just link in the US – but they don’t use nearly as much HFCS (see comment at bottom, there are other sources as well if you Google them).

I think this last point is key – no HFCS in Australia but a blossoming obesity and Type 2 diabetes – at rates very close to the US rates.

Many doctors and others are saying that its the HFCS that’s bad.  My guess though, based on all this, is that too much mono- and disaccharides are bad – period.  Whether they were pure glucose or fructose in HFCSs the result of too much is bad.

Further the form of sugar does not matter beyond fructose causing liver damage as well as other problems such as obesity.

So what do I think after all this research?

The bottom line is that too much sugar in any form is bad period.  HFCS is no worse than pure cane sugar because cane sugar is sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.

Its simply all bad.

HFCS (as well as sucrose or glucose or fructose alone or in combination in other countries) is in virtually everything we eat if we don’t follow something like the “caveman diet:” meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, non-toxic oils (olive, fish, coconut, etc.), nuts, and seeds.

Personally I think that HFCS are nothing to be concerned with unless you are eating it – in which case A) you are a fool and B) it will eventually kill you.

HFCS is just a tool for us to kill ourselves with something besides sugar.  Perhaps its a government conspiracy because there are huge subsidies that make corn cheap.  But beyond that its sheer stupidity on the part of the citizens of the USA.

If you must consume HFCS (or any other kind of sugar in any amount other than a teaspoon or two) I way say eat it with a lot of celery or meat or fish or nuts or seeds to offset the direct impact of total sugar, i.e., give your body something to digest with it besides water or nothing.

I don’t eat HFCS or sugar other than in coffee or on cereal.

You shouldn’t either…

About Todd R. Kueny, Sr.

Todd is a professional programmer, living cliche, husband, father, grandfather, mathematician, technologist, musician, carpenter, plumber, electrician and graphic artist. Read his profile here.