Response to: “5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You.”

Refuting Dr. Mark Hyman’s Extreme Views about High Fructose Corn Syrup.

“In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.”
Walter Cronkite

Mark Hyman, M.D., recently wrote an article in The Huffington Post about the “5 Reasons High Fructose Corn Syrup Will Kill You.” The article was picked up on other sites with the title, “The Not-So-Sweet Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup.” While I do agree with Dr. Hyman that the current media debate is missing the bigger picture, I also believe it is important to give both sides of the story.

What Dr. Hyman says: Expert Studies Have Shown:
HFCS Equals Obesity HFCS Does Not Equal Obesity. Obesity stems from overall caloric imbalance.
Our Bodies Treat HFCS differently than other Sugars Our Bodies Treat HFCS like any other caloric sugars
HFCS is poisoned with Mercury HFCS is not poisoned with Mercury
HFCS is a marker for poor quality food HFCS is a sugar, all sugars should be moderated, and singling out an ingredient will not lead to a healthier lifestyle.

Below you will find quotes, and research from these third party experts whose studies refute Dr. Hyman’s extreme views.

Dr. Hyman brings up the below quotes from Dr. Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D.:

“Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has published… “He states that HFCS is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and that…”

If you click on the link Dr. Hyman provided as the source for Dr. Popkin’s comments, you will see that it is from 2004. But Dr. Hyman doesn’t mention - or perhaps doesn’t know - that Dr. Popkin has changed his mind since 2004. In 2011 Dr. Popkin said:

All sugar you eat is the same, that’s what we know now that we didn’t know in 2004.
Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina

AND

A number of recent studies...have convinced me that HFCS does not affect weight gain.
Barry M. Popkin, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Nutrition, University of North Carolina

 

Reason 1: HFCS ≠ Obesity


Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“The average American increased their consumption of HFCS (mostly from sugar sweetened drinks and processed food) from zero to over 60 pounds per person per year. During that time period, obesity rates have more than tripled and diabetes incidence has increased more than seven fold. Not perhaps the only cause, but a fact that cannot be ignored.”

Expert Quote:

HFCS has been blamed by a few people for the obesity epidemic, because rates of obesity have climbed right along with HFCS consumption. But that’s an urban myth. There isn’t a shred of evidence that HFCS is any more harmful (or healthier) than sugar. We’re consuming way too much of both.
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Does correlation equal causation? Is the rise in HFCS consumption directly related to the obesity and diabetes problems that America is facing? The answer is “no” and “no”, and this becomes clear when you see that obesity is not a U.S. problem, but a global problem, even though HFCS is used very little—or not at all—in many of the countries where obesity rates are rapidly rising. Sugar is the dominant sweetener around the world, accounting for about 92% of caloric sweetener consumption around the globe.

Maybe Dr. Hyman did not know that when HFCS consumption did increase in the United States that it simply replaced sugar, calorie for calorie, but that total calories from all food sources have increased significantly for the American population over the same time period with major contributors including added fats and flour and cereal products. We’re eating more of everything and doing less to expend the calories.

In addition, while it may seem like a minute point in the grand schemes of things, although 60 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may represent what is shipped, it is not the amount that is consumed; according the USDA in 2009, the per capita consumption of HFCS, adjusted for loss during transport, processing and uneaten food, was 35.7 lbs per year or 169 calories per person per day.(1) In 2009, the per capita consumption of sugar, with the same adjustments for loss during transport, processing and uneaten food, was 45.3 lbs per year or 214 calories per person per day.(2) The figure being presented by Dr. Hyman is almost double the amount of what we actually consume.

The interest in HFCS and fructose metabolism spurred a scientific gathering jointly held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service and the International Life Sciences Institute of North America in March 2008. The conference brought together several scientific leaders from varying backgrounds, including former critics of high fructose corn syrup, who found there is little evidence that high fructose corn syrup and sugar (or sucrose) have differing effects on satiety, overall energy balance, metabolic hormones or biochemical metabolites such as triglycerides and uric acid – all suggesting no unique causal role for high fructose corn syrup in obesity.

Suzanne P. Murphy, Ph.D., R.D., research professor at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii, University of Hawaii, summarized the papers presented at the conference. Considering the evidence presented by 22 researchers, Dr. Murphy concluded, “…[high fructose corn syrup] and sucrose are similar and one is not ‘better or worse’ than the other.”(3)

Reason 2: HFCS is not high in fructose.


Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose.”

Expert Quote:

High fructose corn syrup ... is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose. Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 per gram) and consist of about equal parts of fructose and glucose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.
American Dietetic Association, Hot Topics paper on High Fructose Corn Syrup

To provide clarity on the different variations of fructose levels in HFCS, HFCS is sold principally in two formulations — 42 percent and 55 percent fructose. The high fructose corn syrup used in breads, jams and yogurt is 42% fructose – actually less fructose than what's found in sugar. The second formulation, with 55% fructose, is used in many carbonated soft drinks in the U.S. A third formulation with 90% fructose is used in small quantities for specialty applications, but primarily is used to blend with the lower fructose syrup to make the 55% fructose syrup.

In fact, the form of HFCS (HFCS-42) used in many foods on grocery store shelves is the lowest fructose containing caloric sweetener on the market.

Reason 3: Our Bodies Treat HFCS Like Other Sugars


Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“Now back to biochemistry. Since there is there is no chemical bond between [fructose and glucose], no digestion is required so they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream.”

Expert Quote:

Absorption of sucrose and HFCS are both fairly rapid from the small intestines. Sucrose is readily hydrolyzed from disaccharide [bonded fructose-glucose] to monosaccharides [free fructose + glucose] by a sucrase enzyme in the small intestine. It is thus transported into the blood stream as monosaccharides - just as HFCS and honey and fruit sugars are. And the body cannot tell what source they came from.
John S. White, Ph.D., president of White Technical Research

 

Summary of what is below:

  • Although the fructose and glucose is initially bonded in sucrose, the bond quickly breaks down through your small intestines before making its way to the bloodstream and liver; therefore, giving you free fructose and free glucose. This process produces essentially the same metabolic effects whether the sweetener is from agave nectar, sugar, or HFCS (granted these may be in slightly different proportions).
  • Sugar when in the acid environment of a soft drink will break down even sooner to free fructose and free glucose.

Here you can see numerous peer-reviewed studies that show that HFCS and sucrose are metabolized the same. Dr. Hyman is correct that the sugars fructose and glucose in HFCS are unbound, as is the fructose and glucose in all other caloric sweeteners, such as honey, agave nectar, etc., with the exception being sucrose (table sugar). But, as noted above, this has no meaningful metabolic effect in humans. As the American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health found upon their review on the science of high fructose corn syrup: “Even if sucrose is not hydrolyzed before consumption, the covalent bond between the fructose and glucose molecules in sucrose is easily cleaved by the enzyme sucrase in the brush-border cells of the small intestine. Thus, the body is absorbing free fructose and glucose molecules, regardless of whether they originated as part of HFCS or sucrose.”

So it doesn’t matter whether you consume sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, because the end result is the same: transport of free fructose and free glucose into the blood stream.

Another interesting fact is that when sugar (which has the fructose and glucose bonded together) is used in sodas, inversion (hydrolysis) of the bond joining fructose to glucose happens as the soda ages. In the high acid/low pH environment of the soda, the fragile bond joining fructose and glucose is hydrolyzed, which leaves you with free fructose and free glucose (similar to the free sugars present in HFCS and other caloric sweeteners).

Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging.”

Dr. Hyman provides no sources or studies for these extraordinary claims. We would like to know what Dr. Hyman means by high doses; are these doses of fructose relevant to what people actually consume in our diets? Many of the studies that have been performed compared abnormally high levels of pure fructose to glucose, neither of which are consumed in isolation. We eat foods that contain both fructose and glucose in combination along with many other sugars and nutrients. Moreover, in most cases, these large amounts of fructose (not HFCS) used in animal studies are fed to rats, not humans, with the results then misapplied to HFCS. Further, the medical community has long dismissed results from rat dietary studies as being inapplicable to human beings.

Expert Quote:

I think consumers have been misled into thinking that high-fructose corn syrup is particularly harmful. Chemically it's essentially the same as sugar. The bottom line is we should be consuming a lot less of both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, and a personal friend has published extensively on the dangers and the obesogenic properties of sugar-sweetened beverages. He was quoted as saying that ’high fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food industry.’ When I asked him why he supported the corn industry, he told me he didn't and that his comments were taken totally out of context. Misrepresenting science is one thing, misrepresenting scientists who have been at the forefront of the fight against obesity and high fructose sugar sweetened beverages is quite another.”

Our quotes from Dr. Ludwig are:

There’s not a shred of evidence that these products are different biologically. The decision to switch from HFCS to cane sugar is 100% marketing and 0% science.
David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School

AND

High fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food supply.
David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School

We provide the links to the actual articles to enable viewers to read the article in its entirety. We also do not see these quotes as being reflective of an expert “supporting the corn industry” as Dr. Hyman put it, but rather an expert supporting the science and the facts.  

Reason 4: HFCS Is Not “Poisoned with Mercury”


Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“She was then promptly shipped a big vat of HFCS that was used as part of the study that showed that HFCS often contains toxic levels of mercury because of chlor-alkali products used in its manufacturing.(i) Poisoned sugar is certainly not ‘natural’.”

Dr. Hyman tries to capitalize on fears generated by bad research and overblown claims. The mercury report he pointed to was based on outdated, incomplete and otherwise questionable information.

Nevertheless, the corn refining industry took the allegations made in the report seriously and immediately commissioned external testing as well as an independent expert review of the mercury claims. All high fructose corn syrup-producing plants in the United States and Canada were included in the mercury testing.

No quantifiable levels of mercury were found according to the independent lab Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratory, whose work and results were reviewed by Woodhall Stopford, MD, MSPH, of Duke University Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading experts in mercury contamination.

Please visit http://duketox.mc.duke.edu/recenttoxissues.htm and click on the link under the Mercury heading for Dr. Stopford’s analysis and conclusions. You can also see another view on this at the Wandering Scientist.

Bottom Line: It would be wrong to conclude that there’s any kind of food risk based on these reports. High fructose corn syrup is safe and no mercury or mercury-based technology is used in the production of high fructose corn syrup in North America.  

Reason 5: HFCS is a sugar, all sugars should be moderated; singling out an ingredient will not lead to a healthier lifestyle.


Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“The last reason to avoid products that contain HFCS is that they are a marker for poor-quality, nutritionally depleted, processed industrial food full of empty calories and artificial ingredients. If you find "high fructose corn syrup" on the label you can be sure it is not a whole, real, fresh food full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Stay away if you want to stay healthy. We still must reduce our overall consumption of sugar, but with this one simple dietary change you can radically reduce your health risks and improve your health.”

Expert Quote:

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sugar, nothing more, nothing less. If you choose not to eat it, I’m fine with that decision. But your decision should be made because you have decided to eat less sweetened foods and drinks, not because you believe HFCS is some dietary devil to be avoided at all costs.
Jo-Ann Heslin, M.A., R.D., C.D.N.

Yes, high fructose corn syrup along with many other ingredients can act as a preservative in food. In fact, high fructose corn syrup plays a key role in the integrity of many foods that has little to do with sweetening. Functional reasons are those such as: breads and baked goods needing a fermentable sugar necessary for leavening, sweeteners help retain moisture so high fiber products like whole bran cereals taste better and baked goods stay fresh, in canned and frozen fruits, nutritive sweeteners serve as a preservative keeping natural color and structure of the fruits intact, and in salad dressings and spaghetti sauce, sweeteners improve flavor by reducing the harsh vinegar or acid bite while enhancing fruit and spice flavors.

However, contrary to Dr. Hyman’s extreme blanket statement, many healthful foods are made with HFCS and other caloric sweeteners, such as yogurt, flavored milk, multi-grain bread, and frozen fruits, which all have essential nutrients.

To remove sweeteners entirely from their commonly used applications would drastically alter product flavor, require the use of chemical preservatives to ensure product quality and freshness, result in a reduction in perceived food quality (bran cereal with the caloric sweeteners removed would have the consistency of sawdust), and would likely require the addition of bulking agents to provide the expected texture, mouth feel or volume for most baked goods.

The American Heart Association recently acknowledged the role of sweeteners in a healthy diet noting, “In fact, when sugars are added to otherwise nutrient-rich foods, such as sugar-sweetened dairy products like flavored milk and yogurt and sugar-sweetened cereals, the quality of children’s and adolescents’ diets improves, and in the case of flavored milks, no adverse effects on weight status were found.”

Plus we’re talking about sugars here, regular table sugar is mostly used to sweeten items as well, and although it can also be found in healthful foods, it is still a sugar that should be moderated, no different than HFCS.

And to respond to Dr. Mark Hyman's statement:

“Why is the corn industry spending millions on misinformation campaigns to convince consumers and health care professionals of the safety of their product? Could it be that the food industry comprises 17 percent of our economy?”

Bottom Line: Our ingredient is being unfairly demonized. You deserve to have science-based facts provided by experts, so you can make informed dietary choices. We are working hard to share these facts with the public.

But, we encourage anyone who has questions to do their own research, look objectively at what Dr. Hyman has to say and his sources, compare what the experts have to say, and then make an informed decision. Peer- Reviewed studies are a good place to start, as you know these have met the scrutiny of trained scientists, with no vested interest in the subject.

If interested, you can see third-party points of view as well at http://digg.com/sweetcorn55. A couple of good pieces that touch on a variety of questions about HFCS include: