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If fructose is a villain, what about juice?

April 22, 2009 |  5:47 pm

Juice All this endless chatter about high-fructose corn syrup, to the point where regular old sugar -- once reviled as unhealthful -- is even making a comeback.

Why so much focus on high-fructose corn syrup in particular? I can see that the way we shove sugar into pretty much everything is bad news, but the focus on this sweetener confuses me a little.

Perhaps there's good reason to focus on fructose. A new study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests that fructose may exert different physiological effects on the body from another small sugar, glucose -- and not good-sounding ones.

In the 10-week study, 32 overweight people were assigned to one of two groups -- one receiving a glucose-sweetened drink to consume, the other a fructose-sweetened drink. The drink constituted about 25% of the calories the people needed.

At the end of the 10-week period, both groups had gained weight, but those who'd drunk the fructose drink had gained more visceral fat -- fat tucked around internal organs. They also had decreased insulin-sensitivity, higher fasting blood glucose and blood insulin levels -- and other changes in blood fats.

The bottom line was that fructose, more than glucose, seemed to promote a set of unhealthful bodily changes correlated with a higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.

This may seem to point a damning finger at high fructose corn syrup. But doesn't it, more logically, point a finger at juice, and at fruit? (A disclaimer: I like fruit.)

Sucrose -- regular sugar from cane or beets -- is 50% fructose and 50% glucose when it's broken down into its two building blocks. Plenty of fructose there -- not much more, in fact, than what's present in high-fructose corn syrup, which contains about 55%, already as free fructose. So unless there's something physiological that happens before the sucrose is broken down -- which could be so -- it doesn't seem there would be much difference. (Though as we all know, 5% more of something can sometimes make a difference if it's 5% more consistently, day in and day out.)

Maybe what's more important is the increasing presence of sweeteners added to processed foods of all kinds, and not the precise sweetener that's used.

And somehow, amid all this talk of devil sodas, juices -- which some people chug like crazy, because after all, they're healthful -- get a relative pass. Isn't juice loaded with fructose? What part does it play in our diabetes rates?

-- Rosie Mestel 

Photo Credit: LAT / Eric Boyd