The Trans Fat Ban – Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Next?




On July 25, 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger made it official — California would be the first state to ban trans fat. Food providers have been given a year after which the law requires them to replace hydrogenated oils with healthier, naturally occurring oils such as soya, palm, and vegetable oils. The ban was prompted after the link between consumption of trans fat and diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and high levels of cholesterol was confirmed. A similar, but less publicized dietary villain exists — High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

The name may be slightly misleading to some -– the word corn may lead the consumer to believe that it is a naturally occurring substance, and fructose may lead one to confuse the compound HFCS with the fructose that occurs naturally in fruits. On the contrary, it is an artificial substance that uses extract from corn merely as a base. Corn extract is milled to form cornstarch, processed to form corn syrup (mainly glucose) and then modified by the addition of enzymes (alpha- and gluco-amylase, and isomerases); that convert glucose to fructose. The production of this chemical also involves other complex steps, including genetic modification of the enzymes used to make them more stable at higher temperatures. Despite the highly synthetic nature of HFCS, many manufacturers are allowed to use “All Natural” or “100% Natural” labeling in products that contain HFCS.

Clowning AroundPublished literature has suggested a significant correlation between the consumption of foods containing HFCS and obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. Fructose also interferes with the absorption of essential minerals like Copper, magnesium and iodine. After fructose is absorbed in the intestine, it metabolized in the liver. When the liver processes large amounts of fructose, byproducts such as triglycerides, carbon molecules and other precursors to lipid formation are released. These freely circulating triglycerides and lipid molecules aggregate over time and are ultimately converted to fat — which leads to weight gain and obesity. The by products of fructose metabolism also increase the risk of blood clots, high cholesterol and heart disease. Fructose (when consumed in high concentration) also limits the cells’ capability to absorb glucose by interfering with the insulin receptors. This causes high blood glucose levels, which may convert to diabetes.

Scientists agree that the evidence is not conclusive, and further research is necessary. However, it is also true that the consumption of HFCS has increased greater than 1000% from 1970 to 2007. The large consumption amount (USDA approximates 40 lbs per capita in 2007) is certainly alarming. Another disturbing aspect is the unexpected places where HFCS shows up. It is fairly common knowledge that juices and sodas are sweetened with it instead of sugar, but not everyone expects HCFS to be present in breads, soups and salad dressings!

Despite the indications that HFCS is potentially detrimental to health and may be responsible for obesity and heart disease, a ban is unlikely (read impossible) to come by anytime soon. HFCS is cheaper and easier to transport than sugar, may be used in solid or liquid form — so it can be used in a variety of food products. High tariff placed on sugar exported from other countries and active lobbying by the corn industry magnates will sustain and encourage the large-scale production of HFCS. Ultimately, it is up to us to control our personal health by choosing to eat healthier and by making informed choices. We can stay in touch with the literature and expert opinion, and then decide what we want to include in our diet.

Reference

Bray, G.A., Nielsen, S.J., Popkin, B.M. (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(4), 537-543.

  • Erin

    I was under the impression that the latest research found high-fructose corn syrup was not any more likely to cause obesity than glucose (regular table sugar.) The ratio of glucose to fructose in HFCS is actually comparable to that of white sugar. But in my opinion, that just means we we should be limiting it as we would limit food with refined sugar.

    Blog summary of the latest research

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  • The problem with HFCS is that, because it is utilized differently in the body, it doesn’t trigger satiety so people tend to consume more of it. The recent studies are misleading because it only looks at the one-time chemical process within the body, not long-term consumption vs whole “sugars”. I think a ban may be uncalled for as I’d prefer the government not get involoved, but I definately would like to see the public educated about it to the extent that consumers stop buying these products and it no longer becomes profitable for manufacturers to utilize them. I’ve written a blog about easy and inexpensive ways to reduce our consumption. It’s not so much that HFCS is poison, rather that it has invaded almost our entire processed food supply! Our consumption has risen 2000% since the 1970’s, so we really don’t have much data for long-term use.

  • I’ve been trying to prepare better foods now that I have two little ones, but find it so difficult to balance healthy choices with convenience, as I’m also a full-time working mom. I appreciate that food labels list trans fats now, but what I don’t appreciate is the government regulation allowing food makers to put trans fat in the foods but conceal the fact from us by making the serving sizes small enough that the amount of trans fats “don’t count.” From everything I’ve read, every little bit counts. There’s no safe amount.

    Now with trying to avoid HFCS it takes us twice as long in the grocery store. I’m not sure I think it should be banned either, but I’d love to see warning labels on foods that have even the smallest trace amount of HFCS or partially hydrogenated oils.

  • our best fight against high fructose corn syrup might be the advancement of Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture even if it is only in name.

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS, is a physical therapist by profession, and has over 7 years of clinical experience in the field of neurological rehabilitation. She has treated individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and amputations. She has also completed training modules and community education projects in Michigan and North Carolina.
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