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High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is sweeter and cheaper than sucrose, is a sweetener made from corn.  It is commonly used in many types of processed foods, from soft drinks to baked goods; it is found in fruit juice, soda, cereal, bread, yogurt, ketchup and mayonnaise.  HFCS is used because it extends the shelf life of processed foods.

High fructose corn syrup is made by changing the sugar (glucose) in cornstarch to fructose, which is another form of sugar.  The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose. As a result of the manufacturing process for high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules in the sweetener are free and unbound, ready for absorption and utilization.  In contrast, every fructose molecule in sucrose that comes from cane sugar or beet sugar is bound to a corresponding glucose molecule and must go through an extra metabolic step before it can be utilized.

HFCS, which has no real nutritional value, is more than twice as sweet as regular sugar.  Therefore, it causes large spikes in blood sugar when consumed.  If that blood sugar is not immediately used up by the muscles, it can be converted into fat and stored in the body. As a result of the LDL cholesterol increase, which this fat storage produces, the circulation of blood through the brain is slowed down, accelerating cell death through lack of oxygen and nutrients, according to the Princeton University scientists. This is how HFCS can contribute to obesity, cancer, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s and memory loss, according to the latest research.

Over the years, research about the effects of high-fructose corn syrup has produced conflicting results.  Early studies on the subject showed a connection between increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages and obesity.  Some more recent research, however, suggested that high-fructose corn syrup is not less healthy than other sweeteners, nor is it the root cause of obesity.  These recent studies, were sponsored by the beverage industry, which utilizes HFCS.  It is also important to note that obesity in the United States and consumption of HFCS increased at the same time.

The most recent independent study on the subject, done by Princeton University scientists, proved a clear link between HFCS and obesity. The study showed that male rats given water sweetened with HFCS in addition to a standard diet of rat chow gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar with the standard diet.  The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, whereas the HFCS solution was half as concentrated as most sodas.

The second experiment included the first long-term study of the effects of HFCS consumption on obesity in lab animals and monitored weight gain, body fat, and triglyceride levels in rats with access to HFCS over a period of six months. Rats that were on a diet rich in HFCS showed abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and increased fat deposits, especially around the belly. Male rats gained more fat, demonstrating the characteristics of obesity.

The rats in the Princeton study became obese by drinking HFCS, but not by drinking sucrose.  It appears to be that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, whereas glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate called glycogen in the liver and muscles.

On average, Americans consume 60 pounds of HFCS per person every year.

HFCS is more than twice as sweet as sugar. It is included in virtually any processed food items today. If you are eating processed foods, you are getting way too much sugar, which is known to cause multitude of health problems all by itself. And you are definitely getting too much HFCS.

If you’re concerned about the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in your diet, the Mayo Clinic suggests the following diet modifications:

  • Limit processed foods
  • Drink less soda
  • Avoid foods that contain added sugar
  • Choose fresh fruit rather than fruit juice or fruit-flavored drinks
  • Choose fruit canned in its own juices rather than heavy syrup

photo by Suat Eman

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