First, it was claimed that many HFCS sources were contaminated with mercury. The fact is that the levels of mercury detected in the HFCS samples are magnitudes below the harmful ingested dose for humans, even taking into account a lifetime of exposure. The idea that HFCS can cause problems due to mercury poisoning is absolutely ludicrous. It’s simply the product of media and anti-HFCS industry hype.
Next, pro-organic and natural factions of the food industry began to build upon the negative momentum against HFCS that had been established by the mercury fiasco. Many of the negative claims you will see about HFCS are false. For example, it has been claimed that fructose is “converted into fat.” There is a tiny bit of truth in that statement, but it’s (intentionally) phrased in such a way that the uneducated masses will equate fructose to fat. The fact is that fructose is metabolized primarily in the liver. Its degradation yields two products, both of which are substrates for glycolysis, which simply means that they can be used to produce energy like many other compounds. However, it is true that one of the two products can also be converted to glycerol which, among other uses, may serve as a building block for triglycerides (body fat). So, the upshot is that while fructose can contribute to body fat, it can also be utilized for energy along with all other caloric compounds found in food.
It’s also been claimed that fructose has a negative effect on insulin sensitivity and contributes disproportionally to the development of insulin resistance (a cousin of pre-diabetes). The truth is that when the liver is exposed to large quantities of fructose, the body speeds up the process of body fat production and the accumulation of triglycerides. These two effects then begin to negatively impact the body’s ability to respond appropriately to insulin. So, in fact the cause of insulin-related problems is not fructose, but the accumulation of body fat and triglycerides, which is likely to occur with chronic overconsumption of any caloric nutrient, especially sugars.
In order to shed even more factual light on the subject, it’s interesting to take a closer look at the chemical composition of various common commercial sweeteners and see just how alike they are. First off is the king of sweet: sucrose. Also known as table, cane, or beet sugar, sucrose has been used for millennia to sweeten both beverages and foods. It serves as the gold standard against which all other sweeteners are measures. Sucrose is composed of two individual sugar (a generic term for water-soluble crystalline carbohydrates) molecules bound together. One half is made up of a fructose molecule, while the other half is glucose. In the human digestive tract, sucrose is broken down into its component parts and absorbed as one molecule each of each sugar. It’s worth mentioning for comparison’s sake in a moment that sucrose is comprised of 50% fructose.
Next on the list is the big, bad werewolf: HFCS. Actually, there are three different types of HFCS produced commercially. They’re called 42, 55, and 90. The numbers refer to the percent of fructose in the sweetener. 90 HFCS is only used in the production of 55 HFCS, so you will probably never find it in a finished food or beverage. The interesting aspect to note of both 42 and 55 HFCS is that their percentages of fructose are very close to that of sucrose. In addition, the glycemic index (GI) of HFCS is around 60, which is slightly less than sucrose at around 64. The glycemic index of a product indicates how it affects your blood sugar level after you eat it. Generally, the lower the better when it comes to GI. High GI foods tend to cause blood sugar fluctuations that negatively impact energy levels and body composition. As you can see, the chemical composition of HCFS and sucrose is very similar once both are broken down into their basic components. Not surprisingly, their effects on blood sugar are almost identical as well. Hardly the nutritional Satan you hear about on TV.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a couple of sweeteners that have been put on a pedestal by the anti-HFCS parade. First up is agave sugar syrup. This product has been touted as a healthy alternative to both table sugar and HFCS. The ironic part of this story is that while HFCS is being demonized for its fructose content, agave syrup is composed of approximately 85% fructose! I’m certainly not against the use of agave syrup, especially with its GI rating of 15(!!), but keep in mind that agave is an expensive sweetener and will likely not find much success in the mass commercial market due to cost considerations.
Honey is another sweetener touted as the healthy alternative to sugar and HFCS. Honey in fact has a fructose percentage similar to 55 HFCS. While not a bad sweetener, it’s nothing special from that angle. On the other hand, honey is relatively unique in the sweetener world because it actually contains antioxidant compounds. While not a viable replacement for fruits and vegetables, honey’s phenolic ingredients give it a step up on some other sweeteners. When choosing a honey, the darker the better. Darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants.
The campaign against HFCS is based on hyperbole, misused science, and outright lies. As with any sweetener, HFCS should be consumed in moderation to avoid detrimental blood sugar fluctuations and the accumulation of excess body fat. Remember to always research nutritional claims that you read about or see on TV. Marketers and propaganda artists rely on you to simply lie down and believe whatever you’re told. Don’t be a sheep. Look at the facts. Learn to make intelligent, informed decisions about your nutrition and health.