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Fructose and High Fructose Corn Syrup: Toxic or Tortured Logic?
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Fructose and High Fructose Corn Syrup: Toxic or Tortured Logic?

I've always been somewhat uneasy about the recent demonization of fructose and high fructose corn syrup. Fructose occurs naturally in fruit, and is one-half of the sucrose (sugar) molecule. I certainly do not encourage or condone the over indulgence of refined sugar and/or high sugar foods. Calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods, whether the empty calories are from unhealthy fats (saturated, hydrogenated, trans, etc) or refined carbohydrates, is what we should worry about.

The controversy will no doubt continue, and neither my comments nor articles such as those I present below will change the minds of those who have bought into the story. But, as is usually the case, the real answer in issues such as this moderation. People seem to be easily drawn to extremes. I'm not sure why. Regardless, I hope you find the following two articles, of interest.    . . . Don Goldberg

Fructose: Toxic Sugar or Tortured Logic?
April 6, 2013

The anti-sugar forces turn their attention from HFCS to fructose, even at the expense of fruit consumption.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor | 03/27/2013

Americans haven't been told that, after all the fuss, the case against high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) lacked a smoking gun. There was simply no evidence to show that HFCS — a glucose-fructose disaccharide generally between 42 and 55 percent fructose — is metabolically different from table sugar (sucrose), a nearly identical combo of 50-50 glucose-fructose.

Nevertheless, the name high-fructose corn syrup became toxic on a label. Meanwhile, some researchers, determined to demonstrate once and for all that sugar is directly responsible for obesity and type 2 diabetes, turned their attention toward fructose itself, expanding the guilty parties to include all foods that contain fructose, including HFCS and sucrose, along with all fruit juices.

Leading the charge against fructose is Robert Lustig, M.D., an endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco, whose popular video on YouTube brought the case to the masses that fructose is poison -- responsible for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, among others.

This is an uncomfortable message for many to hear because fructose is found in abundance in fruits. And while Lustig absolves fruit of responsibility for obesity because it contains fiber, the fructose-is-poison charge can still work in the mind of anyone biting into an apple. Central to his thesis is the idea that fructose is more easily converted to fat by the liver than is glucose. The process is called de novo lipogenesis (DNL), which simply means making fat from scratch. (In this case, "scratch" means sugar, since the liver can also make fat from excess protein.)

Some scientists point to serious problems with the case against fructose. In response to Lustig’s 2010 Journal of the American Dietetic Association article, "Fructose: Metabolic, Hedonic, and Societal Parallels with Ethanol," John Sievenpiper, Ph.D., at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, points out that DNL from fructose is relatively small in humans. (It was dramatic in the rodents fed unnaturally high levels of this one sugar -- 60 percent of calories — a diet impossible for humans to follow.) And since the average American takes in and only about 49g of fructose per day, fructose-stimulated DNL is insignificant.

Lustig counters this by stating that DNL from fructose must be taken in the proper context, in the light of the factors that increase it — that the body is more likely to make fat from fructose in conditions of overeating, obesity, insulin resistance and taking in glucose at the same time as fructose.

But this line of reasoning raises a problem: Fructose has a very low glycemic index. Central to the indictment of any carbohydrate as the cause of obesity is that insulin drives glucose into fat cells, yet fructose doesn't stimulate an insulin response. It takes plain overeating to get fat on carbohydrates, because the first store of metabolized glucose is as glycogen in muscle cells, not fat in fat cells.

Another obstacle in mounting a case against fructose is that its calorie contribution is dwarfed by other sources of calories in our diet. According to USDA food availability data, adjusted for spoilage and other waste, we’ve increased our per capita food intake by 458 calories since 1970. About 242 of these calories come from added fats and oils. Another 167 calories come from flour and cereal products, which contain no fructose. Only 34 of those increased calories come from added sugar. (This data also points to a serious flaw in a basic assumption underlying the usual attack on carbohydrates, that Americans decreased their fat intake in favor of sugar.)

Sugar intake has been on the decline since 1999, but obesity and type 2 diabetes continue to rise. This is not just an American phenomenon. In response to Lustig’s 2012 article in the journal Nature, "The Toxic Truth About Sugar," the Dietitians Assn. of Australia points out that sugar consumption there decreased by 23 percent since 1980, yet obesity doubled and type 2 diabetes tripled.

There is no question the global pandemic of obesity is heavily dependent upon the consumption of foods that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles. But to place the blame on processed foods and beverages containing a component abundant in fruits and vegetables, labeling it "toxic" and "addictive," fails simple common sense.


Lack of evidence for high fructose corn syrup as the cause of the obesity epidemic

D M Klurfeld1,7, J Foreyt2, T J Angelopoulos3 and J M Rippe4,5,6

International Journal of Obesity advance online publication 18 September 2012;    doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.157


1Human Nutrition, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, MD, USA
2Department of Medicine, Behavioral Medicine Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA
3Laboratory of Applied Physiology, Department of Health Professions, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
4Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
5Department of Medicine (Cardiology), Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA
6Rippe Lifestyle Institue, Shrewsbury, MA/Orlando, FL, USA
Correspondence: Dr JM Rippe, Rippe Lifestyle Institue, 21 North Quinsigamond Avenue, Shrewsbury, MA 01545, USA. E-mail:

7The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of USDA or the Agricultural Research Service.


High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one of the most misunderstood food ingredients. HFCS was developed in the mid-1960s as an alternative to sucrose and because of its physical and functional properties, was widely embraced by the food industry. The use of HFCS grew rapidly from 1970–1999, principally as a replacement for sucrose. HFCS usage in the United States peaked in 1999 and it has been in decline since that time. At its peak, HFCS was still less consumed in the United States than was sucrose, although sucrose did have a significant decline in usage during the time that HFCS usage increased. Worldwide, sucrose is still the dominant sweetener with over nine times as much consumption as HFCS.

HFCS existed as a benign and essentially non-controversial product for over 35 years until 2004 when Bray, Nielsen and Popkin published a commentary suggesting a potential link between HFCS consumption and obesity.1 These authors buttressed their argument by charting the consumption of high fructose corn syrup along with the prevalence of obesity in the United States between 1970-2000, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Adapted from: Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 79: 537-543.

Full figure and legend (45K)

Bray et al.1 based their hypothesis of a potential unique role for HFCS in beverages as a contributor to the epidemic of obesity in the United States on the following arguments:

Obesity rates rose dramatically in the United States between 1970 and 2000.
During the time period between 1970 and 1990, consumption of HFCS rose 1000%, far exceeding the percentage increase of any other food product.
The digestion absorption and metabolism of fructose is different than glucose.
Hepatic metabolism of fructose favors de novo lipogenesis.
Fructose consumption results in less rise in blood glucose than does glucose, thus stimulating less of an increase in insulin, which, in turn, stimulates less of a rise in leptin and less suppression of ghrelin—all of which could contribute to lower satiety from fructose and spur increased caloric consumption, weight gain, and obesity.
There was a temporal association of the increase of HFCS particularly in beverages and the dramatic increase in prevalence of obesity in the United States.
Bray et al.1 used the temporal association as their primary evidence even though this is an example of an ecologic fallacy in which group data are extrapolated to individuals. Controversy and debate about high fructose corn syrup skyrocketed after their initial article often without the initial caution displayed by Bray et al. and often based on misperceptions about the metabolism and health effects of HFCS. This concern was also fueled by experiments performed with large doses of pure fructose compared to pure glucose (neither of which is commonly consumed in the human diet in isolation).2, 3 Furthermore, this article was published at a time of increased media concern and public alarm about the growing problem of both childhood and adult obesity in the United States. Additional confusion undoubtedly arose from the name ‘high fructose’ corn syrup which suggested that it contained higher levels of fructose than does sucrose, which is not true.

To many researchers, the argument that there was some aspect of HFCS, which uniquely contributed to obesity, did not appear to make sense. Furthermore, since fructose and glucose are almost never consumed in isolation in the human diet, research studies or arguments related to the metabolism of fructose vs glucose were not persuasive with regard to their relevance to human nutrition.

Sucrose and HFCS are very similar in their composition. Sucrose contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose. There are two major forms of HFCS in common usage within the food industry. HFCS-55 contains 55% fructose, 42% glucose and 3% other carbohydrates which are readily hydrolysable polymers of glucose. HFCS-55 is the form of HFCS commonly used in soft drinks and other sugar sweetened beverages in the United States. HFCS-42 contains 42% fructose and 53% glucose as well as 5% polymers which are hydrolysable to glucose.4 This is the common form of fructose used in solid foods and other applications.

Moreover, sucrose and HFCS are absorbed identically in the human GI tract. HFCS consists of free fructose and free glucose when consumed. Sucrose contains a covalent bond between fructose and glucose which is hydrolyzed by enzymes in the brush border of the GI tract. Thus it is also absorbed as free fructose and free glucose.5 It is worth pointing out that slightly acidic environments (such as found in carbonated soft drinks) enhance the hydrolysis of sucrose into free fructose and free glucose as does any degree of warmth such as the storage of such carbonated soft drinks at room temperature. Thus, in a major source of sucrose consumption in the human diet, most of the sucrose may have already been hydrolyzed to free fructose and free glucose. Finally, HFCS and sucrose have the same sweetness and the same calories.

In the past decade, a number of research trials have demonstrated no short-term differences between HFCS and sucrose in any metabolic parameter or health related effect measured in human beings including blood glucose, insulin, leptin, ghrelin and appetite.6, 7, 8 This includes work in both lean and obese individuals and both men and women. Both the American Medical Association9 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics10 have concluded that HFCS is not a unique cause of obesity.

In addition to the data from randomized controlled trials cited above, there are a number of other factors which further diminish the likelihood that HFCS is a unique cause of the obesity epidemic. For example, the consumption of HFCS has declined for the past ten years despite obesity levels staying constant or rising in most groups in many countries.11 Furthermore, as already indicated, sucrose is the leading source of fructose in the American diet, not HFCS. Finally, there are epidemics of obesity and diabetes in areas where there is little or no HFCS available such as Mexico, Australia, and Europe.

Perhaps G Harvey Anderson summarized the prevailing scientific consensus related to the postulated link between HFCS and obesity best when he wrote:

‘The hypothesis that the replacement of sucrose with HFCS in beverages plays a causative role in obesity is not supported on the basis of its composition, biological actions or short-term effects on food intake. Had the hypothesis been phrased in the converse, namely that replacing HFCS with sucrose in beverages would be a solution to the obesity epidemic, its merit would have been seen more clearly. Put simply, a proposal that a return to sucrose containing beverages would be a credible solution to the obesity epidemic, would have been met with out right dismissal.’12

While the scientific debate is largely over, the public debate related to HFCS and obesity has, by no means, concluded. There are literally thousands of postings on the internet related to putative links between HFCS and obesity as well as a variety of other metabolic abnormalities. Moreover, a number of manufacturers have yielded to adverse publicity and removed HFCS from their products and replaced it with sucrose despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the two sugars are metabolically equivalent. These sequellae of the initial scientific debate, which persist long after the scientific debate is over, remind us that issues that are important to the public may persist and be misinterpreted long after scientific debate has been concluded.

While the scientific debate related to the initially proposed link between HFCS and the obesity epidemic has been largely settled, a new theory has emerged which argues that while HFCS and sucrose are metabolically equivalent, both are significantly related to the obesity epidemic and associated metabolic abnormalities.13 This argument is based on the belief that the fructose moiety of both HFCS and sucrose causes metabolic derangement.

Once again, this argument is based largely on theoretical constructs, epidemiologic studies, and animal research, often where fructose, glucose, HFCS, or sucrose is fed in very large doses as the sole carbohydrate. It has been further argued that since the largest source of either sucrose or HFCS in the human diet is sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) and that since consumption of these beverages may result in less satiety than solid foods, a potential linkage between HFCS or sucrose overconsumption and obesity could exist.

While it is beyond the scope of the current commentary to discuss whether or not SSBs are a significant cause of obesity, it is worth noting that the epidemiologic literature in this area is mixed. Meta-analyses of normal consumption levels of fructose have yielded mixed results related to obesity. Randomized controlled trials at levels even exceeding normal human consumption have also been inconclusive related to SSBs and obesity. Nonetheless, there have even been calls to restrict or heavily tax SSBs as a means of reducing their consumption. These debates rage on, even though it is clear that public policy in such an important area should not be made in the absence of higher levels of proof than are currently available.

This debate is by no means settled. More and longer randomized controlled trials are clearly needed to establish an appropriate knowledge base related to sugar sweetened beverage consumption and its alleged link to obesity. Yet the debate has already begun to resemble the now disproven HFCS/obesity hypothesis. Even at this early stage in this emerging debate related to SSBs and obesity, it is worth remembering the words of the American philosopher George Santayana which were frequently quoted by former President John Kennedy when he said ‘Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.’14

Conflict of interest
Dr Rippe and Rippe Lifestyle Institue received research grants and consulting fees from a variety of companies and organizations. Including ConAgra, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Weight Watchers and the Corn Refiners Association. Dr Foreyt is a member of the scientific advisory panel of the corn refiners association.

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Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999-2010. JAMA 2012; 307: 491–497. | Article | PubMed |
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Hanuner H, Bechthold A, Boeing H, Bronstrup A, Buyken A, Leschik-Bonnet E, Linseisen J, Schulze M, Strohm D, Wolfram G. Evidence-Based Guideline of the German Nutrition Society: Carobhydrate Intake and Prevention of Nutrition-Related Diseases. Ann Nutr Metab 2012; 60 (Suppl.1): 1–58. | Article |
Santayana G. Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, Scribner's, 1905. p 284.   

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