High Fructose Corn Syrup and the Obesity Epidemic

The addition of high fructose corn syrup to our foods has led to a dramatic increase in obesity rates and a startling increase in disease.
Marcia Wendorf

In 2018, adult obesity rates in the U.S. exceeded 35% in seven states, 30% in 29 states, and 25% in 48 states. West Virginia had the highest rate at 38.1%, and Colorado had the lowest rate at 22.6%. Among other countries, only Mexico surpasses the U.S. in obesity rates.

How did we get so fat? The answer might surprise you. In 1841, Orlando Jones developed a process for separating corn starch from corn kernels. A year later, Thomas Kingsford began creating corn starch, and you can still buy his product today as Kingsford's Corn Starch.

Twenty years later, corn syrup was first created, but it wasn't as sweet as the syrups created with a cane or beet sugar. Fast forward to 1967, when high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was first produced, using a process that converted dextrose sugar into sweeter fructose sugar. While cane and beet sugars contain 50% fructose, HFCS contains 55% fructose.

"...we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup ... but not carrots" -- Michael Pollan, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

The United States spends over $20 billion a year on farm subsidies, with 39% of America's 2.1 million farms receiving them. The lion's share of the subsidies goes to the producers of five crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. Corn is the largest crop grown by American farmers, and the U.S. is the number one producer of corn. U.S. production accounts for 32% of all corn grown in the world.

That means that corn is cheap to buy, and that fact wasn't lost on food manufacturers. Starting around 1970, manufacturers began adding high fructose corn syrup to their products. On November 6, 1984, both Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced that they were switching from sugar to high fructose corn syrup in their soft drinks.

Today, HFCS is found in cookies, crackers, soft drinks, salad dressings, catsups, cereals, flavored yogurts, ice cream, preserved meats, canned fruits and vegetables, soups, and beers. It's even used on sealable envelopes, stamps, and in aspirin to make it taste better.

Consumption of HFCS in the U.S. went from zero in 1970, to 60 pounds per person per year by 2000, and HFCS accounted for half of every person's sugar consumption per year. In Europe, the European Union holds HFCS (known as isoglucose) to a production quota, and in Japan, it is regulated by the government who holds it to a 27–30% share of the Japanese sweetener market.

Consumption of HFCS has been implicated in many of health problems, including weight gain, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, high triglyceride levels, gout, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and kidney stones.

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1. HFCS causes weight gain. Because it is not metabolized by the body in the same way as regular sugar, fructose converts to fat more quickly, and it inhibits the production of leptin, the satiety-inducing hormone.

2. HFCS causes inflammation. Because it is harder for the intestine to absorb fructose, it has to use extra energy called liver adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The intestine usually uses this extra energy to strengthen its lining, so that harmful bacteria is kept out, and semi-digested food is kept in and doesn't leak out, enter the bloodstream and cause inflammation.

Inflammation is one of the major factors in diseases, such as diabetes, dementia, heart disease, cancer, and rapid aging. 

3. HFCS causes fatty liver disease. HFCS is not digested by your body in the same way as regular sugar. HFCS is quickly absorbed in the bloodstream and travels to the liver, where it triggers lipogenesis, a process that produces liver fat.

This, in turn, triggers non-alcoholic fatty acid, which contributes to high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, and thyroid problems.

4. HFCS causes gout. While gout may sound like something out of Elizabethan England, it is, in fact, a debilitating condition. Consumption of fructose causes excess uric acid production, which leads to gout.

Gout is an extremely painful type of arthritis that occurs mainly in the foot. Men and women who drink an excess of fructose-rich soda have a higher incidence of gout.

5. HFCS causes kidney stones. Kidney stones are small, hard mineral deposits, and consumption of fructose has been linked to an increase in the production of calcium, oxalate, and uric acid, which combine to create kidney stones. When kidney stones block the ureter, patients experience extreme pain, painful urination, blood in the urine, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

6. HFCS causes Type-2 diabetes. 90% of diabetes' patients suffer from this variety of the disease. When you eat food, it is broken down by your body into glucose, which is used by cells for energy. The hormone insulin, which is produced in the pancreas, transfers that glucose to the cells.

In Type 2 diabetes, the body produces insulin, but the cells are unable to receive the glucose properly. The body produces more and more insulin until it exhausts its supply. Then, your blood sugar level can rise to dangerous levels. Increased blood sugar can damage your kidneys, rot your teeth, and lead to blindness, heart disease, and stroke.

7. HFCS causes elevated Triglyceride levels. Your body converts any extra calories it receives from food into fat. Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in your blood. Studies have shown that people who consume a lot of HFCS have significantly increased triglyceride levels which increase your risk for coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

8. HFCS elevates LDL. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are the good kind, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are the harmful kind of cholesterol. Over time, LDL accumulates in your arteries, narrowing them and preventing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart. When an artery becomes completely blocked, this is a heart attack.

High fructose consumption significantly raises LDL levels, and overweight children who consumed a lot of fructose had increased LDL levels.

9. HFCS causes hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, occurs when the force of blood flow against your blood vessels is too strong. This damages those vessels and eventually damages your heart.

One in three Americans suffers from hypertension, and most strokes and heart attacks occur in people suffering from high blood pressure. High intake of HFCS has been positively associated with elevated hypertension.

Breakfast - the most dangerous meal of the day

So, how can you avoid HFCS? Read food labels! If a food contains HFCS, put it back on the shelf. Especially considering what you eat for breakfast - cereal, muffins, yogurt, pancakes, waffles, cereal bars, jam and jelly, bagels, donuts, and toast are all brimming with HFCS. It's even in your favorite low-fat or fat-free yogurt, which contain more than 40 grams of HFCS.

And, the biggest culprit when it comes to HFCS – soda.  Coke's information page states, "Depending on where you are in the world, we’ll either use sugar or HFCS. We generally use HFCS in places where corn is more widely available. In places where sugarcane or sugar beet is more available, we’ll use those instead."

In answer to the question "Is high fructose corn syrup bad for you?" Coke states, "No. We are committed to product safety and quality. All ingredients we use – including HFCS – are safe."

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