Timi Gustafson | What about high-fructose corn syrup?

Dear Timi,

I’m confused. For the longest time, I have been trying to avoid high-fructose corn syrup by not using items that are notoriously loaded with them, such as sodas and fruit juices that are not made from 100 percent fruit. I do the same for my kids. Lately, however, I read that there is no real scientific evidence that natural sugar is healthier than fructose made from corn, although some manufacturers explicitly advertise the exclusive use of natural sugar in their products as a better, albeit pricier choice.

Dear Confused Reader,

You are not the only one who is getting mixed signals on this subject. There are indeed conflicting messages from the food manufacturing industry as well as the medical science community.

High-fructose corn syrup was developed in the 1970s as a sweetener, not just for sodas but also for countless other food products. In fact, high-fructose corn syrup serves not only as a sweetener, but more predominantly as a preservative. It is made by changing sugar, which is glucose, in cornstarch to fructose, which is another form of sugar. The end product consists of a mixture of both, fructose and glucose.

Because it helps to extend the shelf life of processed foods and drinks, and because it is much cheaper than natural sugar, high-fructose corn syrup has become extremely popular among food and drink manufacturers. You will find it not only in sweet tasting products, but also in bread, cereal, pasta, soups, canned vegetables, salad dressings, ketchup and even in supposedly “healthful” items such as flavored yogurt.

So far, researchers have not been able to come up with irrefutable evidence that high-fructose corn syrup is harmful to our health. There is suspicion that our body processes the fructose from corn syrup differently than it does cane or beet sugar, and that this may alter the metabolism. It may be that this process also makes the liver release more fat into the bloodstream.

Most experts on the subject agree, however, that it is mostly the omnipresence of high-fructose corn syrup in processed foods that may promote weight gain which, in turn, can have many other negative health implications. In other words, it is perhaps not so much the quality but the quantity of the fructose we consume that is unhealthy.

For example, a single 12-ounce can of soda contains as much as a dozen teaspoons of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes more than 62 pounds of sugar every year.

Especially children and teenagers may be at risk. A few years ago, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that since 1965 milk consumption among teenagers has continuously declined – although milk is an important source of calcium which a growing body needs – while the consumption of sodas and fruit drinks has more than doubled.

Our kids are overloaded with sugar from early on by a diet that is dominated by sodas and processed foods. Today, we lament an epidemic growth of childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes and hypertension. And the adults are not better off. Most of us eat too much sugar, whether we intend to or not, and the results are plain to see.

So, if you want to escape the sugar trap, limit your intake of processed foods as much as possible, stick to fresh produce, stay away from sugary drinks and, most importantly, cut down on your portion sizes no matter what you put on the table. Good luck!

Timi Gustafson is the author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Find more tips for a healthy lifestyle in her book which is available at local bookstores, at www.amazon.com and at her blog. Visit www.timigustafson.com to read many more Glad You Asked Q+A sessions and post your own questions, comments and suggestions.

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