Monday, September 8, 2008

The sweetest of sweets?

A friend recently brought the following ad from the Corn Refiners Association (CFA) : http://www. sweetsurprise. com/tvads. php?vid=TwoBites. flv and wanted to know my opinion about the ad. I've decided to take my first stab at offering an RD's point of view about the currently vilified sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

So, let me just hit the main points that the Corn Refiners Association make in this ad. First of all, it's stated that HFCS is made from corn. This is true to a point; however, it's not as if the makers of HFCS take corn and squeeze it to produce HFCS. The process of producing HFCS from corn is a bit lengthier and more complicated than that. It essentially starts out as cornstarch and is processed with enzymes to produce the HFCS. The second major point is that HFCS contains the same calories as sugar or honey. This is actually true. Both sugar, honey, as well as other caloric sweeteners and HFCS yield approximately 4 calories per gram. Lastly, the ad states that HFCS is fine in moderation. I would agree. Consumption of this ingredient is not going to cause the demise of someone's health when done so in moderation. Although I'd be curious as to what the CFA's definition of "moderation" is when it comes to HFCS.

Something that the ad didn't address is some of the information or rumors that have been floating around about HFCS.
  • First of all, the name high fructose corn syrup has been misleading for people. HFCS is actually only high in fructose in relation to regular corn syrup. In reality, HFCS contains approximately the same amount (55% fructose and 45% glucose) of fructose as table sugar (50% fructose and 50% glucose). One piece of information swirling around out there is that HFCS increases triglyceride levels in the blood. Consumption of this caloric sweetener may very well contribute to elevated triglycerides (and therefore heart disease) in people prone to having higher levels of this fat in their blood, but the so-called risk of this is the same as that for regular sugar, too. Also, some people maintain that consumption of HFCS (particularly the fructose) causes disruption in the regulation of appetite via the hormone, leptin, causing someone to eat more than s/he normally would. While it is true that research has exhibited that fructose may not stimulate the production of leptin, which regulates appetite and fat storage, given the proportion of fructose in HFCS, the effect is not any greater for HFCS than for regular sugar. In fact, some forms of HFCS contain less fructose than regular sugar!
  • Secondly, it's been associated with being one of the primary causes for obesity. This primarily stems from a commentary article authored by George Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry Popkin in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004, which posed some possible relationships between trends in consumption of HFCS and obesity rates over several decades. However, since the publishing of this article, more research has been conducted on HFCS and has found that HFCS alone does not necessarily cause a person to gain weight. However, the calories from this caloric sweetener consumed in excess of what a person needs may promote weight gain. Therefore, it's a calorie issue rather than an ingredient issue. In fact, the authors of this article have since clarified that while HFCS is not necessarily the most healthful ingredient, it is not necessarily the Evil One that it's made out to be either.
So, am I giving HFCS a huge thumbs up here? Not necessarily. I think the point I'd like to make here is that we need to look at the bigger picture. What is HFCS? It is a form of sugar. What foods contain HFCS? Processed foods. HFCS does not occur naturally in these foods as does the sugar in fruit or milk; therefore, HFCS is considered an {added sugar}. What are the latest guidelines regarding consumption of added sugars? Well, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommend that we choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners. So, while the recommendations do not suggest that we need to completely eliminate added sugars from the diet, they still suggest limiting consumption of added sugars.

What does this all mean to me? We can best achieve optimal nutrition by consuming more fresh, whole, minimally processed foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. These foods will naturally contain fewer added sugars and will also be more nutrient dense containing more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals than processed or refined foods that contain HFCS. These foods, especially whole, fresh vegetables and fruits, will also naturally offer greater volume for fewer calories. So, they'll be more satisfying without contributing an abundance of calories, especially from added sugars.

Maybe HFCS gets a bad rap because it gives people something to blame for some of the current health concerns in our country today. It gives us an enemy to watch out for. In reality, the effects of this particular caloric sweetener are not that different from other forms of added sugar, such as table sugar, honey, or molasses, and I believe that's really what we should look at. While I personally believe that there is possibly an overuse of this sugar in foods for reasons that I won't get into here, if it weren't HFCS, it would be some other form of sugar, and it would still be in foods that are mostly processed rather than in their most natural form. That's what we really need to consider. Remember: balance, moderation, and variety are three keys to a more nutritious food intake. Salud!


elle-elle said...[Reply to comment]

My first thought when I saw the ad was: how can you eat this stuff in moderation? When you read the label it is in a lot of food and drinks so how can that be moderated very easily?

I recently bought lipton's bottled green tea, the label lead me to believe it was all natural. It tasted good, so I looked at the ingredients, and it showed it contained high fructose corn syrup? Ugh. gross. I'm drinking several glasses of this a day!

I switched to lipton's powdered green tea because it does not have HFCS. But I'm still looking for a better more natural green tea....

Abigail said...[Reply to comment]

I agree with the last comment. It's so frustrating when everything you buy seems to have sugar/HFCS in it unless you are shopping at Whole Foods Market, which can mean spendy grocery shopping. My strategy lately has been to stay on the "outside" aisles of the grocery store as I've heard and found it to be true that most of the products that are processed or have a lot of sugar in them are shelved in the inner aisles.

Thanks for your clarification Michelle! I feel safer knowing the occasional, accidental dip into the HFCS pool will not kill me.

Samantha said...[Reply to comment]

Well said Michelle!!

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