Thursday, April 10, 2008

Down on High Fructose Corn Syrup

Ask anyone who knows me about my flexibility about food. I love meat (including liver and foie gras and hot dogs), bread, artificial sweeteners, coffee, and probably a lot of things that others who are careful about their diets abstain from.

But I don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It’s a sweetener added to not just the obvious culprits like candy and soda, but in more surprising spots like soup, supermarket breads, pretzels, and most condiments. While some of the experts on metabolic syndrome and nephrology often say to me that it is a bad thing that has been added to our food supply, there is enough backlash research out there that many others in the medical profession still won’t weigh in on its negative effects because we just don’t know for sure if it is directly tied to obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes.

Once I was visiting some friends in the Hamptons and this topic came up (you’d be surprised how shopping for our BBQ was a minefield for this stuff…hot dog buns, ketchup, relish, for example). Anyway, when it came time for me to explain why HFCS was bad, I found the only argument I could defend logically was about the insidiousness of this stuff. I mean, when we eat a bag of candy, we may know we’re consuming a high quantity of sugar. But when it’s an English muffin, then we’re talking about consuming sugar in ways that is unbeknownst to us and therefore a danger with HFCS.

Well this week, I finally understood another piece to the puzzle. Here it goes: table sugar is made up of 2 monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. Glucose is vital to our bodies. All carbs at the end of the day during digestion essentially boil down to glucose that is delivered via the bloodstream throughout the body to fuel our bodies’ processes from physical energy to our emotional mood.

However, the other molecule, fructose, is the more interesting one. Also a sugar found naturally in fruit and some veggies like CORN (where HFCS is manufactured from). When the small intestines breaks down the sugar into fructose and glucose, the fructose moves on slowly to the liver where it takes a really long time (say a few hours depending on the dose) to be metabolized. Fructose in fact has a low-glycemic index, and therefore recommended to diabetics (how ironic!), because it doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike, i.e. an outpouring of the hormone insulin from the pancreas to soak it up in the blood stream like glucose does.

But when fructose reaches the liver, it apparently makes the liver forget all the other processes it is supposed to do (like deliver bile to your digestion process to break down fats) to work out the fructose. It also seems to activate 2 other things, the production of triglycerides (types of fat that are stored away created by excess calories become when you don’t use those calories for energy) and the production of uric acid (remember gout).

It’s a better answer to my pal’s question from the Hamptons two summers ago. But probably more of a buzz kill.