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A not-so-convincing case that high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than sugar

March 24, 2010 |  1:53 pm

People love to hate high fructose corn syrup. Though its chemical content is nearly identical to that of table sugar, it is frequently blamed for causing the obesity “epidemic” in the U.S. The finger-pointing has become so intense that food manufacturers now brag that their products are HFCS-free. (My favorite example is Log Cabin Lite syrup, which touts that it contains “natural sugar” while simultaneously trying to emphasize its “reduced calorie” status.)

Hfcs So perhaps it’s no surprise that many consumers embraced a recent study from Princeton University finding that the corn-based sweetener caused rats to gain more weight than rats that ate sugar.

Princeton researchers allowed three groups of male rats to eat as much rat chow as they pleased. One group also had access to a 10% sugar solution for 12 hours each day; a second group was allowed to drink an 8% HFCS solution for 12 hours each day; and a third group could drink the HFCS solution without any restrictions. A fourth group of rats got chow only.

After eight weeks, three groups of rats weighed essentially the same – the chow-only rats (462 grams on average), the 24-hour HFCS rats (470 grams) and the sugar-water rats (477 grams). But the rats that were able to drink the HFCS solution for 12 hours each day weighed in at an average of 502 grams, a difference that was deemed statistically significant.

How could this be? It wasn’t simply the calories in high-fructose corn syrup. The fat rats drank 21.3 calories' worth of the sweetener each day, only slightly more than the 20.1 calories sipped by rats with 24-hour access to the HFCS solution. What’s more, the rats that were offered sugar water consumed 31.3 calories worth of sweetener each day.

The researchers don’t offer a clear answer, but they suggest that the extra fructose in high-fructose corn syrup may be to blame. Table sugar is made of equal parts fructose and glucose, while HFCS contains 55% fructose, 42% glucose and 3% other sugar molecules called higher saccharides.

As the researchers explain in their paper, fructose is known to interfere with the body’s natural system for telling the brain when to stop eating. Fructose is also easier for the body to metabolize. But it’s still not clear how – or even whether – these facts make HFCS more dangerous than sugar. Nor is it clear why the effect would only be seen in rats that consumed HFCS for 12 hours a day but not those who were able to drink it 24 hours a day when both groups wound up drinking approximately the same amount overall.

Complicating things further, the researchers cite a related study of female rats that found no difference in weight gain between animals that consumed HFCS or sugar over an eight-week period.

In another phase of the Princeton study, the researchers found that rats allowed to drink the HFCS solution gained more weight over six months than rats with no access to a sweetened beverage. The difference was dramatic: rats with 24-hour access to HFCS gained 27% more weight than the rats stuck with chow only. But the researchers didn’t include a third group of rats with access to sugar, so it’s impossible to say whether HFCS was worse than regular sugar.

(Why didn’t they test the long-term effects of sugar? The researchers said it wasn’t necessary because sugar consumption didn’t affect body weight in their first experiment. True, but neither did HFCS when made available for 24 hours a day, and they did test that.)

The researchers remedied this problem in a third experiment involving female rats. Over a seven-month period, rats that were able to drink sugar water for 12 hours a day gained 183% of their body weight – the exact same amountas rats who could drink HFCS solution for 12 hours a day.

However, female rats with 24-hour access to HFCS boosted their body weight by 200%.

It’s not clear why high-fructose corn syrup was more fattening over an eight-week period when it was available for 12 hours of the day (but not 24), yet the opposite was true when the experiment lasted for seven months. In an e-mail, the researchers explained that the difference could be due to the fact that male rats were used in one experiment and female rats were used in the other.

The study was published online last month in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, though Princeton publicists called attention to it just this week. The results have been much discussed in the blogosphere (including this response from the Corn Refiners Assn., the trade group representing makers of high fructose corn syrup).

The researchers concluded “over-consumption of HFCS could very well be a major factor in the ‘obesity epidemic,’ which correlates with the upsurge in the use of HFCS.” It might be. But to my mind, these experiments hardly prove it.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Too much high fructose corn syrup is bad for you, but so is too much sugar. Photo credit: Hal Wells/Los Angeles Times

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Comments (16)

I guess the real question is "Why do you care?". Really, what motivates you to attempt to unsuccessfully poke holes in the study? Money?

What motivates me to get rid of HFCS? My kids and my Liver.

There other report by Duke showed that it also causes liver damage.

I am old enough to remember when we had journalists. With journalists HFCS would never have entered our food supply to begin with. Now we have bloggers paid to spin.

Intravenous glucose is commonly given to patients in the hospital to sustain life. There is no IV fructose in the bag, however. Why is this? Because IV fructose is dangerous. In small amounts, fructose has always been a healthy part of human diet in fruits and vegetables. However, large amounts of fructose poses a serious health risk. Unlike glucose, fructose cannot be used by the body. Instead, it must be processed in the liver where it is uncontrollably converted into fat particles, triglycerides and atherogenic lipids. This causes insulin resistant diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Thus, fructose is considered more dangerous and harmful than plain old glucose. Fructose also causes abnormal lipid panels in obese kids, who may then be given statin drugs. Wouldn't it make more sense to cut out the fructose instead?
Read more:
jeffrey dach md

I was a chemist in a corn fructose processing plant. I know the whole process forward and backward. All I can say is that I dont buy any food with corn syrup from experience. School kids are just being fattened like cows but more effectively since the sugars have already been broken down by enzymes and a 100% absorbed. God help Uus all and the obesity and diabetes.

"Table sugar is made of equal parts fructose and glucose".

This is misleading. Most so-called "table sugar" is in fact sucrose. The sucrose molecule is a disaccharide - two monosaccharide molecules chemically joined at the hip. One of the two monosaccharide molecules in sucrose is very similar (but not identical) to a glucose molecule in its unattached state; the other is very similar (but not identical) to a fructose molecule in its unattached state.

Incidentally, much confusion is generated from the folksy insistence on referring to the North American maize plant as “corn”. “Corn” is a universal term that traditionally West European farmers used to refer to the main cereal grown – so “corn” in much of Europe still refers not to maize but to wheat. The early European newcomers to the Americas saw maize and referred to it as “Indian corn”. "Indian" then got dropped leaving “corn”- best just to call it maize.

I just have trouble trusting any of these stories "debunking" the HFCS studies (of which there are many). The corn industry is so strong in the United States nowadays, and they have so many corporate shills working in their favor day and night to ensure nothing corn-related gets bad press. It scares me when I see TV ads claiming corn syrup is perfectly healthy, because I know how much money is being put into sending that message.

Plus, as a general rule I'm immediately skeptical of anything the ill-named "Center for Consumer Freedom" (or any of the many other Berman-led related front groups) supports. There's so much money at stake here.

Frankly, because of all the money involved, I'm starting out skeptical of HFCS. The corn industry needs to PROVE it's the same (comprehensive scientific testing, not trying to rebuke tests on the other side, or poorly performed tests they pay for solely to achieve certain results).

Why do you care so much to poke holes in the study? You are obviously being coerced or paid to do this. No real journalist will go out on a limb to defend HFCS, and not even mention the Duke study that proves liver scarring. The mere fact that this article is written if evidence that:
A) The Corn Refiners are desperate
B) Journalism is dead in America
C) Karen Kaplan is no more a journalist than I am an acrobat
D) All of the above

Karen, my organization is going to investigate your ties to the Corn Refiners. Once we find out your true motivation for writing this obviously compromised story, we fully plan on outing you to the public. We are sick of this kind of journalism.

Lionel, I'll save you the trouble. I work for the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper pays my salary. I have no connection to the Corn Refiners. Please keep us all posted on the outcome of your investigation and attempts to "out" me, so that no one mistakenly believes that my true motivation is anything other than reporting facts.

When a study makes conclusions that aren't supported by the evidence, it is my job to point that out. To say that this study makes an unsatisfying case against HFCS is not the same as defending HFCS. If you read the blog carefully, you'll find many examples of my colleagues and me poking holes in studies of all sorts.

The findings from this study may or may not prove to be true, however all I know is that I've avoided HFCS religiously for almost 3 years and I've experienced a myriad of health improvements!

First, my seasonal allergies have all but disappeared(and whenever I slip-up and eat something with HFCS, I become congested for a few days)... also, my blood triglyceride levels are minimal. Lastly, I've lost about 11% bodyfat. I'm not saying I'm allergic to HFCS, but there's a DEFINITE correlation between HFCS and the severity of my allergic reactions.

The way I look at it, our bodies were created to handle naturally occurring sugars... and HFCS is NOT naturally occurring. While doctors and scientists like to pretend they know how certain substances affect the body, they really don't. It's my opinion that our bodies aren't sure how to handle HFCS as it's not naturally occurring, so our bodies respond by storing it as fat as well as possibly throwing our bodies' chemical makeup out of balance. Thus I avoid it all together.

While fructose is a naturally occurring sugar, in nature it's usually paired with fiber. Products with HFCS rarely contain much fiber. Just something to note.

This study may have not met all the "basic quality standards", however it's probably good info nonetheless.

I tend to want to believe that high fructose corn syrup is a bad thing, so I will probably continue to take this with a grain of salt, however I DO NOT think it's reasonable to question the author's motives here. She points out some well enunciated issues with the study - for instance the lack of consistency with using male rats then female rats seems pretty unforgivable (or course we only have their story second hand here). Even if I would prefer to hear otherwise, because of some preconceived notion I have, I don't think it's reasonable to take that out on messenger as it were.

Granted, there's a certain flippancy to the conclusion that doesn't sounds as journalistic as I would like, but I think the points still remain.

I agree that this study is not very convincing. That is not to say that HFCS is good for you! There's plenty of evidence showing it's horrible and possibly the main cause of chronic disease. But so is regular sugar. The study supposedly shows HFCS is much worse that sucrose. That's the point of contention.
Karen: next time emphasize that message. I think people thought you were defending HFCS...

There is a key link that is missing here. Corn has an omega 6 and 3 (EFA's essential fatty acids) ratio of 46-1. The human body needs approx 3-1 ratio. Look up the endocannabinoid system and obesity. There was an obesity drug developed called Rimonabant that has since been removed by the FDA. This was the first drug designed to work on this system.

The western diet has an omega (EFA) balance that is totally off balance. This is a reasonable explanation for same calorie sugars having differing results. Google endocannabinoid system and obesity. Then investigate the omega balance and the western diet.

Learn and educate.

They never debunk the Bs smoking ban/heart attack "studies" but go after real science. Wake up, the threat isn't tobacco or cannabis, it is HFCS!

so glad to see some actual scientific critique in the media! This article is really well written and thought out. As the autism/vaccine conspiracy theory slowly dies, hopefully the HFCS one will as well. (Assuming the masonic-extraterrestrial-corn syrup-nsa agents have their way...)

Karen's (propagandist) ties to the HFCS industry is not direct. Rather it can be found in the advertisers who pay the LA Times, who, in turn, pay Karen's salary. Make no mistake, this article is damaging propaganda intending to harm Americans. Avoid HFCS and journalists who work for the LA Times or any other whorish, lying organization.

Why question the author's motives? Or at least care about that yet not extend the same suspicion and skepticism to the authors of the study? There's lots of questions about the methodology of the study. Why they did certain things and not others that really don't add up. Some of us just want to know the truth.

And trying to link the LA Times with the HFCS industry is bizarre and irrational and paranoid.

Yeah, so i guess every post debunking the dangers of HFCS is conspiratorially posted by members of the corn industry. Give me a break. Some of us like to hear both sides of the story rather than decide on one and ignore new information that might prove one's opinion to be wrong.


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