by Marion Nestle
May 2 2014

HFCS politics, continued. Endlessly.

Sometimes I have some sympathy for the makers of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  They get such bad publicity.

The most recent example occurred at the White House during the annual Easter Egg Roll, and involved the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), Michelle Obama.

Meet Marc Murphy, a chef, drizzling honey over a fruit salad:

MURPHY: “Honey is a great way to sweeten things, it is sort of a natural sweetener.”

FLOTUS: “Why is honey better than sugar?”

MURPHY: “Our bodies can deal with honey…The high-fructose corn syrup is a little harder to … I don’t think our bodies know what do with that yet.”

FLOTUS: “Did you hear that?  Our bodies don’t know what to do with high-fructose corn syrup. So we don’t need it.”

OK class.  It’s time for a lesson in basic carbohydrate biochemistry.

  • The sugars in honey are glucose and fructose.
  • The sugars in HFCS are glucose and fructose.
  • Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together, but quickly unstuck by enzymes.

The body knows perfectly well what to do with glucose and fructose, no matter where it comes from.

Now meet John Bode, the new president of The Corn Refiners Association:

We applaud First Lady Michelle Obama’s commendable work to educate the public about nutrition and healthy diets… It is most unfortunate that she was misinformed about how the body processes caloric sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup…Years of scientific research have shown that the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup similar to table sugar and honey.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may recall that I have a little history with the Corn Refiners.

Bizarrely, I was caught up in their lawsuit with the Sugar Association.

And I was not particularly pleased to find several of my public comments about carbohydrate biochemistry displayed on the Corn Refiners website.  I did not want them used in support of the group’s ultimately unsuccessful proposal to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar.

I asked to have the quotes removed.  The response: “Your quotes are published and in the public domain.  If you don’t want us to use them, take us to court.”

I let that one go.

Enter John Bode, the Corn Refiners’ new president and CEO.  As it happens, I became acquainted with Mr. Bode in the late 1980s when he was Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and I was working in the Department of Health and Human Services (yes, the Reagan administration).

To my pleasant surprise, he recently wrote me “warm greetings, after many years.”  His note assured me that my request to have the quotes removed would be respected and that they would soon disappear.  And so they have, except for a couple in some archived press releases.

Score one for John Bode.

Mr. Bode has his work cut out for him.  He has to teach the world carbohydrate biochemistry, restore public acceptance of HFCS, defend against Sugar Association lawsuits, stop the Corn Refiners from being so litigious, and do some fence-mending, all at the same time.

And he must do all this in an era when everyone would be better off eating a lot less sugar of any kind, HFCS included.



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  • I have to respectfully disagree with this piece for 3 reasons:

    1) nobody is drinking honey in large quantities in beverages; honey is typically used in small amounts

    2) when you drink HFCS beverages they contain 50% more fructose than glucose

    3)This piece confuses chemistry with biochemistry. Yes, the chemistry is identical as Fructose and glucose are both C6 H12 O6. But the BIOchemistry is very different. Any basic biochemistry textbook says that fructose and glucose have very different effects in the body, for example:

    a) Fructose does not elicit an insulin response like glucose
    b) Fructose is absorbed in the gut differently than glucose
    c) Too much fructose can induce “leaky gut” i.e. spillover of gut microbes into the circulation resulting in endotoxemia and liver damage
    d) Fructose is taken up almost exclusively by the liver where it is metabolized rapidly and unregulated, producing oxidative stress, ATP depletion, uric acid and of course triglycerides (fat) which are either stored in the liver or exported into the circulation causing dyslipidemia
    e) Fructose affects the brain differently than glucose and can cause appetite dysregulation
    f) Many of these effects are likely worse in growing babies, infants and children

    SUMMARY – – Yes, it doesn’t really matter where the fructose and glucose come from but the facts are that if you drink an HFCS beverage it will have 50% more fructose than glucose, and this fructose is handled very differently in the body than glucose, especially when consumed in large amounts and in liquid form, and these different effects on the body are all not good.

  • Not a fan of HFCS, and I have eliminated all added sugars from my diet, but I feel less angry about the stuff since I found out there’s a difference between the way a rat’s liver processes fructose and how a human does.

    Found this tidbit at Scientific American regarding the difference in HFCS metabolism in mice/rats versus humans:

    Not only do many worrying fructose studies use unrealistic doses of the sugar unaccompanied by glucose, it also turns out that the rodents researchers have studied metabolize fructose in a very different way than people do—far more different than originally anticipated. Studies that have traced fructose’s fantastic voyage through the human body suggest that the liver converts as much as 50 percent of fructose into glucose, around 30 percent of fructose into lactate and less than one percent into fats. In contrast, mice and rats turn more than 50 percent of fructose into fats, so experiments with these animals would exaggerate the significance of fructose’s proposed detriments for humans, especially clogged arteries, fatty livers and insulin resistance.

    Is Sugar Really Toxic? Sifting through the Evidence

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