Move over, red meat. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is the new bad boy of the food industry. Although companies like Hunt’s, Gatorade and Pepsi are rushing to replace HFCS with sugar, it’s ubiquitous in our nation’s food supply. Not only was there a recent report of mercury contamination in HFCS, but in February, a study came out of Princeton University suggesting that rats fed HFCS for 6 months gained more weight, had more body fat and showed higher triglycerides than rats fed the same amount of table sugar (sucrose.) A flurry of debate, fueled in part by the corn syrup industry, followed, calling into question the significance and accuracy of the study. In the meantime, Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and films like “Food Inc.” and “King Corn” accuse the corn industry of practically force-feeding Americans corn products.
I’ve been skeptical about all the negative press that High Fructose Corn Syrup is getting. As I recall from my biochemistry class, all sugars are broken down into their simplest forms so the body can use them for energy. They can be used immediately, or stored for later use either as fat, or as a carbohydrate called glycogen.
Reading more, I learned that sucrose, and HFCS are both composed of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Both contain about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The big difference is that the fructose molecules in HFCS float free, while each fructose molecule in sucrose is stuck tightly to a glucose molecule.
The Princeton researchers think the unbound fructose in HFCS is more likely to be stored as fat than the bound fructose molecules in sucrose. They may be on to something.
It makes sense that sucrose and HFCS would be processed, or metabolized, differently. Our body has to do some work to break apart the glucose and fructose in sugar, while the fructose in HFCS is instantly available to our metabolic machinery. For thousands of years, our bodies have evolved to break down plants, whole grains and meat to power our cells. Now, we’re essentially shoveling pure energy down our throats in the form of HFCS, white flour and other processed foods. I don’t think it will be long before researchers have more concrete evidence that corn syrup is not equivalent to sugar in the human diet.
I’m not going to knock myself out avoiding foods containing HFCS, but as a mom and a label reader, I will definately choose products sweetened with sugar. Call it a gut feeling.