CBNNews.com - When the word sugar comes to mind, most of us immediately think of the white stuff we use on cereal, in coffee or tea, and for baking. That's technically sucrose, a product refined from sugar cane or sugar beets.
But one major sweetener can't be found in a sugar bowl, just in food and drinks. It's known as corn syrup, most commonly as high fructose corn syrup, or simply HFCS.
One recent addition to the huge number of HFCS-sweetened food items is Hannah Montana cereal. With marketing appeal, some kids may pester their mothers to try it.
But should moms give in and buy a product laden with corn syrup?
HFCS Taking over the Market
What we know as table sugar, that sucrose, used to be king. Then this tasty syrup flooded the market.
Medical doctor Dana Flavin is head of the Foundation for Collaborative Medicine and Research. She says, starting in the 1960s, HFCS became increasingly popular. Part of the draw was not only its sweetness, "It was a good substitute, an inexpensive substitute for sugar and we didn't have to rely on imports of sugar. We could just go ahead and use the corn syrup."
The government helped make corn syrup an even bigger hit with manufacturers and consumers. Corn subsidies helped make it cheaper; tariffs and quotas doubled the market price of table sugar. Plus HFCS has a longer shelf life, a boon for manufacturers.
Those advantages led to widespread use in a multitude of grocery items. Sodas are actually the number one use. But the range of products includes salad dressings, barbecue sauces, whole grain breads, pasta sauces, hot dogs, breakfast cereals, peanut butter, jams, jellies, yogurt, and much more. Even consumers who avoid sodas may be taking in much more than they realize.
Stephen Sinatra is the well-respected cardiologist and author of many books as well as a wellness letter, "Dr. Sinatra's Heart, Health, & Nutrition." One of his books, "Metabolic Cardiology," covers how the body is best energized; he says HFCS interferes with optimum metabolism.
In fact, Sinatra has long denounced HFCS, but finds it hard to avoid. He even reads labels assiduously, "The other day when I ate something, there was high fructose corn syrup in it and I got rid of it immediately."
When the corn syrup wave was getting under way, Flavin worked in the foods division at the Food and Drug Administration. For years, she had few concerns about the sweetener until she needed research for an article in Life Extension magazine, "The Metabolic Dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup."
An avid reader of scientific literature for decades, Flavin was shocked, "I was floored because I didn't want to believe it. And I'm a toxicologist from FDA and a physician. And I'm thinking, 'Oh, this is ridiculous, this is just corn syrup. I wish it were just corn syrup and were just that simple, but it's much more complicated."
Actually, Sinatra and Flavin think excessive table sugar and corn syrup are both bad. But they say recent research shows corn syrup is worse.
The reason is unclear, but the manufacturing of corn syrup makes it chemically different than table sugar. With sucrose, glucose and fructose are chemically bonded to each other and then separated in digestion. With HFCS, the sugars are unbound, giving free glucose and free fructose before digestion enters the picture.
Newly revealed is that some of the manufacturing is adding mercury to HFCS from chemicals used in processing. Small amounts of this toxic metal may appear in half or more of the products that use significant quantities of HFCS.
The amounts are low, falling below government safety levels. Some critics suggest there may be other contaminants as well, but that has not been confirmed.
Fructose and the Body
The basic problem with high fructose corn syrup is the fructose itself. The body processes fructose more slowly than regular table sugar.
In the liver, the body turns fructose into fat rather than burning it for energy. Flavin comments, "And so you start developing what they call fatty liver. Now fatty liver can start also changing into a less effective liver that's not functioning properly."
A fatty liver encourages weight gain. In addition, Flavin says fructose compounds obesity by increasing hunger, "So you do eat more. And then you have a greater appetite because your body's saying, 'I haven't had enough.' And your body is being fooled by a whole chemical imbalance."
Sinatra, the cardiologist, says in that same process, insulin, the body's sugar manager goes haywire, "High fructose corn syrup is very sweet. It elicits an insulin response, and remember insulin is the number one risk factor for cardiovascular disease."
That means increasing the potential for deadly strokes and heart attacks. And insulin problems are at the heart of diabetes and all its health complications:
Analysts performed a retrospective study of diet and this type of diabetes over the years 1909 to 1997. The found increased corn syrup consumption and less fiber intake correlated with an increase of type 2 diabetes by a factor of 20.
Flavin worries about what's happening to the nation's children. Kids and teens consume more corn-sweetened soft drinks than any other age group. And that makes them much more likely to develop diabetes.
The fructose in the corn syrup interacts with the carbonation to form substances called carbonyls. Carbonyls are not only toxic, but have been linked to cell damage leading to diabetes in children.
According to the Institute of Medicine, children born in 2000 have a high lifetime risk for developing type 2 diabetes. That risk is 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls.
Sinatra says most doctors don't recognize high fructose consumption as the cause of health problems in adults. Instead they treat symptoms like high blood pressure or high cholesterol as diseases in themselves, "He or she may prescribe drugs when only the best treatment is loss of weight, exercise, and restriction of simple carbohydrates -- sugars -- and high fructose corn syrup is at the top of the list."
Flavin says we can't as a society ignore the degradation to our health, "When you start seeing these changes over time -- seeing this in the animal models and then you start seeing the population becoming more and more obese, more and more diabetic, we really need to start re-evaluating this."
Experts say any fructose in your diet should come from eating whole fruit, in moderation. But for optimal health, put a lid on the sugar in general. And stay away from what many doctors are calling the most dangerous kind of sugar, high fructose corn syrup.