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High-Fructose Corn Syrup’s Bad Rap Unfair?

Panel Answers Nagging Question of Whether HFCS Is More Likely Than Other Sugars to Cause Weight Gain
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 11, 2008 -- The much maligned processed sweetener high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is no more likely than other sugars to make you gain weight, an expert panel reports.

The panel -- composed of several researchers who had received funding from the corn syrup industry and several who had not -- was convened several years ago following the publication of a 2004 study suggesting a link between the increased use of high-fructose corn syrup and the rise in obesity.

Its findings were reported this week in a supplemental issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN).

The panelists agreed that the evidence does not support the contention that high-fructose corn syrup is more likely to cause weight gain than other types of sugar.

But that doesn't mean that the increased use of the high-fructose corn syrup -- used in many soft drinks and a wide variety of processed foods -- has not played a role in the obesity epidemic, panelist and co-author of the 2004 study Barry Popkin, PhD, tells WebMD.

Popkin is a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

"It is very hard to find processed foods without some added sugar, whether it is from high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or fruit juice concentrate," he says. "All of these sugars add extra calories, and extra calories lead to weight gain."

What Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

One thing everyone agrees on is that there is a lot of confusion about high-fructose corn syrup and how it differs from other sugars, even among nutritionists and nutrition researchers.

As the name suggests, high-fructose corn syrup is made from corn, but "high-fructose" is a misnomer, says sugar researcher John S. White, PhD, who is a consultant for the Corn Refiner's Association.

HFCS contains about 55% fructose and 45% glucose, compared to about 50% fructose and 50% glucose in table sugar (sucrose), honey, and most sugars derived from fruit concentrates.

A study published earlier this year by University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center nutrition researcher Elizabeth Parks, PhD, and colleagues suggested that the body metabolizes pure fructose differently from glucose or fructose/glucose combinations, turning it into fat more efficiently.

But the newly published panel review of the research on high-fructose corn syrup showed no meaningful metabolic difference between it and table sugar.

Another investigation included in the AJCN report showed that high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar had a similar impact on metabolic factors associated with obesity, including blood glucose and insulin levels.

"The hypothesis that there is something unique about high-fructose corn syrup that causes obesity is just wrong," White says.

Unanswered Questions

But Park says that doesn't necessarily mean that there are no differences in the way the body metabolizes high-fructose corn syrup and other sugars.

Popkin says there is emerging, but still preliminary, evidence suggesting a link between high-fructose corn syrup and heart and kidney disease.

"The obesity question has been answered," he says. "High-fructose corn syrup is no worse and no better than any other sugar (for weight gain). But other questions remain."

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, PhD, tells WebMD that attempts to label one sugar worse than another misses the point that Americans are eating way too much sugar, no matter what the source.

"People who eat a lot of sugary foods or processed foods that probably contain hidden sugars are going to take in too many calories," she says. "That is why it is important to read food labels."

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