The Not-So-Sweet Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

By Mark Hyman, MD, Huffington Post, May 2011

If you can’t convince them, confuse them. –Harry Truman

The current media debate about the benefits (or lack of harm) of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our diet misses the obvious. The average American increased their consumption of HFCS (mostly from sugar sweetened drinks and processed food) from zero to more than 60 pounds per person per year. During that time period, obesity rates have more than tripled and diabetes incidence has increased more than seven-fold. Not perhaps the only cause, but a fact that cannot be ignored. Doubt and confusion are the currency of deception, and they sow the seeds of complacency. These are used skillfully through massive print and television advertising campaigns by the Corn Refiners Association’s attempt to dispel the “myth” that HFCS is harmful and assert through the opinion of “medical and nutrition experts” that it is no different than cane sugar. It is a “natural” product that is a healthy part of our diet when used in moderation.

Except for one problem. When used in moderation, it is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay and more.

The Lengths the Corn Industry Will Go To

The goal of the corn industry is to call into question any claim of harm from consuming high fructose corn syrup, and to confuse and deflect by calling their product natural “corn sugar.” That’s like calling tobacco in cigarettes natural herbal medicine. Watch the slick ad where a caring father walks hand in hand with his four-year-old daughter through a big question mark carved in an idyllic cornfield. In the ad, the father tells us:

Like any parent, I have questions about the food my daughter eats — like high fructose corn syrup. So I started looking for answers from medical and nutrition experts, and what I discovered whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar. Knowing that makes me feel better about what she eats and that’s one less thing to worry about.

Physicians are also targeted directly. I received a 12-page color glossy monograph from the Corn Refiners Association reviewing the “science” that HFCS was safe and no different than cane sugar. I assume the other 700,000 physicians in America received the same information, at who knows what cost. In addition to this, I received a special “personal” letter from the Corn Refiner’s Association outlining every mention of the problems with HCFS in our diet — whether in print, blogs, books, radio or television. They warned me of the errors of my ways and put me on “notice.” For what I am not sure. To think they are tracking this (and me) that closely gives me an Orwellian chill.

New websites like and help “set us straight” about HFCS with quotes from professors of nutrition and medicine and thought leaders from Harvard and other stellar institutions.Why is the corn industry spending millions on misinformation campaigns to convince consumers and health care professionals of the safety of their product? Could it be that the food industry comprises 17 percent of our economy? But are these twisted sweet lies or a sweet surprise, as the Corn Refiners Association websites claim?

What the Science Says about HFCS

Let’s examine the science and insert some common sense into the conversation. These facts may indeed come as a sweet surprise. The ads suggest getting your nutrition advice from your doctor. Having studied this for more than a decade, and having read, interviewed or personally talked with most of the medical and nutrition experts used to bolster the claim that “corn sugar” and cane sugar are essentially the same, quite a different picture emerges and the role of HCFS in promoting obesity, disease and death across the globe becomes clear. Last week over lunch with Dr. Bruce Ames, one of the foremost nutritional scientists in the world and Dr. Jeffrey Bland, a nutritional biochemist, a student of Linus Pauling and I reviewed the existing science, and Dr. Ames shared shocking new evidence from his research center on how HFCS can trigger body-wide inflammation and obesity.

Here are 5 reasons you should stay way from any product containing high fructose corn syrup.

1. Sugar in any form causes obesity and disease when consumed in pharmacologic doses.

Cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are indeed both harmful when consumed in pharmacologic doses of 140 pounds per person per year. When one 20-ounce HFCS sweetened soda, sports drink or tea has 17 teaspoons of sugar (and the average teenager often consumes two drinks a day), we are conducting a largely uncontrolled experiment on the human species. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed the equivalent of 20 teaspoons per year, not per day. In this sense, I would agree with the corn industry that sugar is sugar. Quantity matters. But there are some important differences.

2. HFCS and cane sugar are NOT biochemically identical or processed the same way by the body.

High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and far from “natural” or a naturally occurring substance. It is extracted from corn stalks through a process so secret that Archer Daniels Midland and Carghill would reportedly not allow the investigative journalist Michael Pollan to observe it for his book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” The sugars are extracted through a chemical enzymatic process resulting in a chemically and biologically novel compound called HFCS.

Some basic biochemistry will help you understand this. Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two-sugar molecules bound tightly together — glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose. And HFCS is cheaper than sugar because of the government farm bill corn subsidies. Products with HFCS are sweeter and cheaper than products made with cane sugar. This allowed for the average soda size to balloon from eight ounces to 20 ounces with little financial costs to manufacturers, but great human costs of increased obesity, diabetes and chronic disease.

Now back to biochemistry. Since there is there is no chemical bond between them, no digestion is required, so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol). This is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver,” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin — our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both of these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more.

But there was one more thing I learned during lunch with Dr. Bruce Ames. Research done by his group at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute found that free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed by the gut and soaks up two phosphorous molecules from ATP (our body’s energy source). This depletes the energy fuel source or ATP in our gut required to maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining. Little “tight junctions” cement each intestinal cell together preventing food and bacteria from “leaking” across the intestinal membrane and triggering an immune reaction and body wide inflammation.

High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining, allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging. Naturally occurring fructose in fruit is part of a complex of nutrients and fiber that doesn’t exhibit the same biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in “corn sugar.’

The takeaway: Cane sugar and the industrially produced, euphemistically named “corn sugar” are not biochemically or physiologically the same.

3. HFCS contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA.

An FDA researcher asked corn producers to ship a barrel of high fructose corn syrup in order to test for contaminants. Her repeated requests were refused until she claimed she represented a newly created soft drink company. She was then promptly shipped a big vat of HFCS that was used as part of the study that showed that HFCS often contains toxic levels of mercury because of chlor-alkali products used in its manufacturing.(i) Poisoned sugar is certainly not “natural.”

When HFCS is run through a chemical analyzer or a chromatograph, strange chemical peaks show up that are not glucose or fructose. What are they? Who knows? This certainly calls into question the purity of this processed form of super sugar. The exact nature, effects and toxicity of these funny compounds have not been fully explained, but shouldn’t we be protected from the presence of untested chemical compounds in our food supply, especially when the contaminated food product comprises up to 15 to 20 percent of the average American’s daily calorie intake?

4. Many independent medical and nutrition experts DO NOT support the use of HFCS in our diet, despite the assertions of the corn industry.

The corn industry’s happy looking websites and bolster their position that cane sugar and corn sugar are the same by quoting experts, or should we say mis-quoting …

Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has published widely on the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks and their contribution to the obesity epidemic. In a review of HFCS in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,(ii) he explains the mechanism by which the free fructose may contribute to obesity. He states that:

“The digestion, absorption and metabolism of fructose differ from those of glucose. Hepatic metabolism of fructose favors de novo lipogenesis [production of fat in the liver]. In addition, unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or enhance leptin production. Because insulin and leptin act as key afferent signals in the regulation of food intake and body weight [to control appetite], this suggests that dietary fructose may contribute to increased energy intake and weight gain. Furthermore, calorically sweetened beverages may enhance caloric overconsumption.”

He states that HFCS is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and that it doesn’t stimulate insulin or leptin production. This prevents you from triggering the body’s signals for being full and may lead to overconsumption of total calories. He concludes by saying that:

“… the increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.”

The corn industry takes his comments out of context to support their position. “All sugar you eat is the same.” True, pharmacologic doses of any kind of sugar are harmful, but the biochemistry of different kinds of sugar and their respective effects on absorption, appetite and metabolism are different.

David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School has published extensively on the dangers and the obesogenic properties of sugar-sweetened beverages. He was quoted as saying that “high fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food industry.” When I asked him why he supported the corn industry, he told me he didn’t and that his comments were taken totally out of context. Misrepresenting science is one thing, misrepresenting scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against obesity and high fructose sugar sweetened beverages is quite another.

5. HCFS is almost always a marker of poor-quality, nutrient-poor disease creating industrial food products or “food-like substances.”

The last reason to avoid products that contain HFCS is that they are a marker for poor-quality, nutritionally depleted, processed industrial food full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. If you find “high fructose corn syrup” on the label, you can be sure it is not a whole, real, fresh food full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Stay away if you want to stay healthy. We still must reduce our overall consumption of sugar, but with this one simple dietary change you can radically reduce your health risks and improve your health.

While debate may rage about the biochemistry and physiology of cane sugar vs. corn sugar, this is, in fact, beside the point (despite the finer points of my scientific analysis above). The conversation has been diverted to a simple assertion that cane sugar and corn sugar are not different.

The real issues are only two.

1. We are consuming HFCS and sugar in pharmacologic quantities never before experienced in human history — 140 pounds a year vs. 20 teaspoons a year 10,000 years ago.

2. High fructose corn syrup is almost always found in very poor quality foods that are nutritionally vacuous and filled with all sorts of other disease-promoting compounds, fats, salt, chemicals and even mercury.

These critical ideas should be the heart of the national conversation, not the meaningless confusing ads and statements by the corn industry in the media and online that attempt to assure the public that the biochemistry of real sugar and industrially produced sugar from corn are the same.

For more information on the effects of high fructose corn syrup see


(i) Dufault, R., LeBlanc, B., Schnoll, R. et al. 2009. Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: Measured concentrations in food product sugar. Environ Health. 26(8):2.

(ii) Bray, G.A., Nielsen, S.J., and B.M. Popkin. 2004. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 79(4):537-43. Review.

Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time ‘New York Times” bestselling author and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine.

Diet Soda Fizzles

By Bridget Murray Law (Diabetes Magazine from American Diabetes Association)

You may want to put down that diet soda. New research inserts a question mark after the “diet” part of your drink.

In the study, people who drank a can or more of diet soda daily showed a 34-percent higher risk of developing the metabolic syndrome: a cluster of cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk factors including elevated waist circumference and high blood pressure, blood lipids, and fasting glucose levels.

Why would that be? Study coauthor Lyn Steffen, PhD, MPH, RD, says she is as mystified as the rest of us. But she offers some possible explanations. “It could be an ingredient in the soda itself, like the artificial sweetener, which might be causing something like insulin resistance,” speculates Steffen, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. “Or it could be something to do with the behavior of people who consume diet soda—what other foods they’re eating and how much exercise they’re getting throughout the day.”

Her research team tracked the dietary intake and health status of 9,500 men and women, 45 to 64 years old, over nine years. They found that people who ate the most meat raised their risk of developing metabolic syndrome by about 25 percent. And those who regularly ate Western-style cuisine like refined grains and fried foods upped their risk 18 percent.

But diet soda involved the highest risk—and, Steffen notes, a recent Purdue Uni¬ver¬sity study suggests a possible reason. In that study, rats eating saccharin-sweetened yogurt consumed more of it, and gained more weight, than rats eating sugar-sweetened yogurt.

In Steffen’s study, most diet sodas “were likely sweetened with aspartame, not saccharin, but it could be the two work similarly,” she says. “So maybe diet soda consumers are eating more.” This isn’t the first study to link the metabolic syndrome and diet soda. However, past studies show the link with sweetened soda as well as diet versions. This study showed no such association between sweetened beverages and the syndrome.

But that’s no reason to start drinking sugary sodas, which are loaded with empty carbohydrates. Instead of reaching for soda (regular or diet), Steffen suggests trying water or green or black tea. Another good bet is skim milk. Steffen’s team found that low-fat dairy products help stave off the metabolic syndrome.

The American Heart Association published the diet soda findings online on Jan. 22, 2008, in its journal Circulation. The saccharin and weight-gain study appeared in the Feb. 2008 issue of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

Relationship between High Fructose Corn Syrup and Diabetes

Nov. 27, 2012 ( –

Countries that mix high-fructose corn syrup into processed foods and soft drinks have higher rates of diabetes than countries that don’t use the sweetener, a new study shows.

In a study published in the journal Global Health, researchers compared the average availability of high-fructose corn syrup to rates of diabetes in 43 countries.

About half the countries in the study had little or no high-fructose corn syrup in their food supply. In the other 20 countries, high-fructose corn syrup in foods ranged from about a pound a year per person in Germany to about 55 pounds each year per person in the United States.

The researchers found that countries using high-fructose corn syrup had rates of diabetes that were about 20% higher than countries that didn’t mix the sweetener into foods. Those differences remained even after researchers took into account data for differences in body size, population, and wealth.

But couldn’t that mean that people in countries that used more high-fructose corn syrup were just eating more sugar or more total calories?

The researchers say no: There were no overall differences in total sugars or total calories between countries that did and didn’t use high-fructose corn syrup, suggesting that there’s an independent relationship between high-fructose corn syrup and diabetes.

“It raises a lot of questions about fructose,” says researcher Michael I. Goran, PhD, co-director of the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. Although the study found an association, it doesn’t establish a cause/effect relationship.

The Industry Responds

Not everyone is convinced.

Audrae Erickson is president of the Corn Refiners Association, an industry group that recently petitioned the FDA to change the name corn syrup to corn sugar on ingredient lists.

“Just because an ingredient is available in a nation’s diet does not mean it is uniquely the cause of a disease,” she says in a prepared statement. “There is broad scientific consensus that table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are nutritionally and metabolically equivalent,” Erickson says.

“It is, therefore, highly dubious … without any human studies demonstrating a meaningful nutritional difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar — to point an accusatory finger at one and not the other,” she says.

On that point, nutritionists who were not involved in the research think the corn industry is right.

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of food, nutrition studies, and public health at New York University, says the study “is based on a questionable and highly debatable premise: that high-fructose corn syrup is significantly different in its physiological effects from sucrose, or table sugar.”

Both table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are a mixture of two simple sugars — fructose and glucose. Nestle says studies show that the body responds to table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup the same way. The bottom line, she says, is that too much of any kind of sugar isn’t healthy, no matter where it comes from.

It’s More Complicated?

But Goran says the problem is more complex.

There’s some scientific evidence that the body treats fructose differently than glucose. Table sugar is about half fructose and half glucose. The percentage of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup isn’t disclosed on food labels, but it’s thought to range from 42% to 55%. But it may be even higher than that. In a study published in 2011 in the journal Obesity, Goran found the percentage of fructose in drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup ranged from 47% to 65%.

“I know there’s a lot of consumer confusion about fructose: It’s a fruit sugar; it’s healthy; it’s already in sugar,” he says. But, again, it’s not that simple. Goran thinks there’s a big difference between fructose in fruit — where it’s paired with fiber, which slows down its absorption — and fructose that’s refined into syrup.

“There are lots of other aspects of the way fructose is handled by the body which are different than glucose that make it metabolically dangerous for the body,” he says.

Sugar: An Inflammatory Substance?

By Susan Raatz ( 2012

There is a debate raging about the role of sugar in today’s diet and its relationship to disease. There are those who say that sugar is ruining the nation’s health, that it is a primary dietary evil leading to obesity and related diseases. Recently, researchers from the University of California-San Francisco claimed that sugar is essentially a toxin that causes all sorts of lifestyle diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. They proposed that sugar be regulated like tobacco and alcohol with taxes on sugary products, age limits applied to certain foods and beverages, and restrictions on advertising (especially on ads targeted to kids). They also argued that sugar is addictive.

Can sugar really be addictive? The FDA defines addiction as craving for and continued use of a substance that is hazardous to your well being. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that sugary foods cause—in the brains of animals—a chemical effect similar to that of addictive drugs like cocaine. Whether this response constitutes addiction in the technical sense is still debated. What is clear, however, is that people have a hard time giving up sweets. That may be rooted in a combination of nostalgia (the memory of mom’s cookies baking), habit (always having something for dessert) and chemical attraction (the releases of feel good chemicals in your brain).

We consume large amounts of sugar. The average American eats (or drinks) 34 teaspoons of sugars a day, which is equal to 500+ calories. This averages more than 100 pounds of sugars per person each year. Sugar intake has drastically increased over the last century. In 1822, the average American ate in 5 days the amount of sugar found in one of today’s 12-ounce sodas. Now, we eat that much every 7 hours! Sugar intake doesn’t just come from cake, candy, or sugar added to your tea. Almost all processed foods in the supermarket contain extra sugar. In fact, a large number of sugars are used in processed foods, so that reading food labels can be confusing. Some of the worst offenders are sodas (which can contain as much as 10 teaspoons per can) and many “low fat” products.

High Fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has replaced sucrose (sugar) in many of the food products that you purchase. HFCS is a mixture of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose, which is similar to the composition of sucrose. This sweetener is only sold for processed foods; yet, it provides about 8% of the total calories in the American diet. Some scientists contend that HFCS contributes to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Sugar contains calories and only calories; it provides no other nutrients – no protein, no vitamins and no minerals. When sugar calories replace more nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, your whole diet (and, maybe, your health) suffers.

Anthropologists tell us that we like sweetness for a reason. Sweet foods are generally safe source of calories – something that has been important to survival throughout most of history. Today, with an ample supply of safe food, the appeal of sweetness is no longer protective. Most people must work to keep their caloric intakes at healthful levels. So how do you keep your sugar consumption at healthy levels? The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults get no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day – a third of the current average. Uncovering all the sugar in your diet isn’t easy. Sugar often hides under several names and turns up in foods you wouldn’t suspect, like bread, crackers, salad dressing, ketchup and light mayonnaise. The following tips will help reduce the total sugar intakes—while still enjoying sweetness.

  • Serve smaller portions of sweets and desserts so you can still enjoy these foods.
  • Switch to unsweetened beverages like water, 100% juice or low-fat milk products instead of sugar-laden sodas and juice
  • Avoid impulse snack purchases
  • Make fruit your everyday dessert – baked apples, berries, frozen juice bars or a fruit salad should be your go-to desserts.
  • Make sweet treats really “treats,” not every day food items.
  • Read the labels of food items carefully and choose those that contain the least amount of total sugars.
  • Avoid foods that have been modified to be low-fat, but have increased sugar.

Visit to get more advice on general nutrition and to help reduce your sugar intake.

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