Fructose is toxic — that was the ideology professor and author Robert Lustig managed to kickstart with a lecture titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth. In this presentation, he claimed that fructose, a natural sugar in fruit, is “poisonous” and should be replaced by glucose.
Subsequently, fructose was largely demonized in the media, to the point where many ill-informed people were avoiding fruit altogether. On the plus side though, public attention also turned to the harmful effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) consumption. That’s the manufactured sugar used in sodas, such as Coca-Cola, and linked to 180,000 deaths.
Fortunately recent years have seen plenty of new research, both animal and human clinical trials, dismissing Lustig’s negative claims about naturally occurring fructose.
However I’ve noticed one big problem. Certain Big Food multinationals are trying to piggy-back and benefit from this resurgence of fructose. They are in a way hijacking the research, attempting to group manufactured HFCS with healthy-again fructose.
But they are not the same.
I want to clarify any confusion between fructose and HFCS, citing a new study in which the author’s words seem slightly misleading, possibly guided by a hidden agenda.
Fructose Is Not Toxic
This topic came to mind after Current Opinion in Lipidology published a new study titled, Fructose vs. glucose and metabolism: do the metabolic differences matter?
Lead author Dr. John Sievenpiper, a researcher in the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre of St. Michael’s Hospital, concluded that if portion sizes and calories are the same, fructose does not cause any more harm than glucose.
“Despite concerns about fructose’s link to obesity, there is no justification to replace fructose with glucose because there is no evidence of net harm,” said Dr. Sievenpiper in a media release.
Analyzing data from 20 previous controlled feeding trials, researchers investigated the effects of fructose and glucose against several health risk factors. Fructose showed potential benefits over glucose in several key risk factor categories, including insulin production and markers of fatty liver disease.
“Some health care analysts have thought fructose to be the cause of obesity because it’s metabolized differently than glucose,” said Dr. Sievenpiper. “In calorie-matched conditions, we found that fructose may actually be better at promoting healthy body weight, blood pressure and glycemic control than glucose.”
And this is great news because, um, fruit right? Tasty, nutritious and natural. It suggests we should certainly include many fruits in our diet, in their natural form, of course; not juices or dried, tinned or processed fruits.
But these findings aren’t the real reason I felt compelled to share this study. There’s something else Dr. Sievenpiper implies in his findings that must be clarified.
Are We Being Misled?
I worry that this research, whilst helpful, may have a hidden agenda which is detrimental to public health in the long run.
Dr. Sievenpiper says, “Overall, it’s not about swapping fructose with glucose. Overeating, portion size and calories are what we should be refocusing on — they’re our biggest problems.”
I think we all agree that overconsumption of calories, fuelled by large portion sizes and calorie-dense food products are spearheading the prevalence of obesity. But I worry that emphasis and public focus is subtly being shifted away from types of sugar, namely HFCS. Removing HFCS from the limelight seems very counterintuitive to public health, and also very convenient for products which use HFCS.
The bottom of this research paper lists author conflicts of interest, in which Dr. Sievenpiper has received research support from numerous organizations, including the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Calorie Control Council and The Coca-Cola Company (investigator initiated, unrestricted grant). It states his wife, an employee of Unilever Canada, has also received research support from The Coca-Cola Company.
That was clue number one. Could this paper be hoping to slide HFCS out of trouble?
Don‘t Be Fooled by Coca-Cola
I don’t want the public to be misled by selective information. I may just be some dietician who researches and discusses health and nutrition topics online, but I have no affiliations, biases or hidden agendas.
The sugar in today’s diet that should remain front and center of the obesity debate is HFCS. And with no disrespect to the work of Dr. Sievenpiper whatsoever, I have been wary of how his findings are presented ever since November 2013, when he presented in Sydney at the Sweet Symposium: A Spotlight on Fructose and Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Trends. The symposium was sponsored by Coca-Cola. Clue number two. I was there in the audience.
The papers presented at the event highlighted that the amount of sugar consumed is the issue we should be focusing on. Keeping in mind that Coca-Cola isn’t going to fund an event with the sole purpose of promoting public health (after all, they have shareholders to keep happy), it was evident that the true purpose was to convince health professionals that the type of sugar consumed is not important. Naturally that includes HFCS.
They want to convince health professionals and the public that our current negative stance on HFCS is not warranted. In other words, Coca-Cola products are not to blame.
When all presenters had finished at the symposium, guests were offered canapés and Coca-Cola drinks.
Fructose, Good. High Fructose Corn Syrup, Bad.
As we have thoroughly established — backed by research, such as Dr. Sievenpiper’s, and nature itself – we can classify fructose from fruit as generally healthy.
But that does not mean HFCS is good for you in reasonable amounts, or any amounts for that matter.
The manufacturing process of creating HFCS from corn involves milling to produce corn starch, then processing that starch to yield corn syrup. Enzymes are then added to change some of the glucose into fructose, resulting in HFCS. The enzymes involved in the process are alpha-amylase, glucoamylase and xylose isomerase.
You don’t need to be a doctor, an academic or a rocket scientist to understand that nature did not intend corn to be consumed like this. HFCS is not natural. It is not nutritious. It is not good for you. Period.
Fructose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) are markedly different. Don’t let Big Food multinationals fool you into thinking otherwise.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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