Trend watchers say that nutritional villains come in cycles. First we get upset about fat of some sort, then we might put carbohydrates under the microscope. Next it might be a micronutrient, like caffeine.
Recent history bears that out. After that weird low-carb fad in 2003 and 2004, we went on to slap fat around, finally banning trans fat, more or less, from our food over the past couple of years.
Those trend watchers say salt will be next. I hope they’re right, because I’m getting tired of all the attacks on health advocates’ current villain, high fructose corn syrup. I’ve been trying for a couple of years now to figure out exactly how high fructose corn syrup is different from other sugars.
Some people dislike corn syrup because they don’t think it tastes as good as cane sugar. That’s a matter of personal preference and there’s no reason to argue that point.
Others dislike the fact that corn is heavily subsidized and part of the “factory farm” system that they believe has homogenized our food and in the process drained it of its nutrients and damaged the environment. They say the fact that corn is subsidized and is thus made into a very cheap sweetener means that manufacturers have been able to make food taste better by adding those cheap sweeteners, increasing the calorie count of our foods and contributing to the obesity epidemic. Instead, we should use “natural” sweeteners like honey and agave nectar, they say.
That’s all legitimate food for thought, but it doesn’t mean that high-fructose corn syrup—or HFCS as it has come to be known perhaps by those trying to make it sound scarier—is actually any worse for you than any other sugar.
And in fact, as far as anyone I’ve spoken to can tell, it’s not. Both table sugar—or sucrose—and HFCS are made from two types of sugar molecule: glucose and fructose. Sucrose is a 50-50 combination of the two smaller sugars. HFCS is generally 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
The way some nutritionists have explained it is: Glucose can be sent right from the stomach to the bloodstream, possibly raising your blood sugar, which is problematic if you’re diabetic. Fructose, which is the sugar found in fruit, has to be sent to the liver, making your liver work harder. There are some indications that if you consume too much fructose without the fiber in fruit that slows down its absorption, your liver can get overwhelmed, possibly resulting in insulin resistance which can lead to diabetes.
So if you’re diabetic, you should avoid sugar, but we already know that. However, glucose also doesn’t trigger our sweetness receptors, only fructose does that, which means that HFCS with its 55-45 percent ratio of fructose is sweeter, and so less of it can be used to achieve the same amount of sweetness. Fructose and glucose have the same number of calories, so HFCS actually is a bit less fattening.
But we’re not talking about that much of a difference, really. HFCS has 10 percent more fructose than table sugar. Is it that big a deal? Some people claim that it is, but I suspect that they’re really more angry at the politics of HFCS than at its nutritional value. Because while some health advocates are railing against HFCS, they’re advocating the use, as I said before, of honey and agave nectar.
So I visited the National Honey Board’s web site and got a nutritional breakdown of the product they represent.
Guess what? Honey is roughly 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, a fact its supporters tout, because that means it’s sweeter, calorie for calorie, than table sugar.
Agave nectar is a whopping 85 percent fructose. So if fructose overwhelms the liver and is responsible for the obesity epidemic, agave nectar is a bigger culprit than anything being manufactured by corn processors.
If people are opposed to the politics of corn production, they should go ahead and attack that, but by mixing politics with nutrition, all they do is breed more confusion.