High Fructose Corn Syrup: 3 Bits of Sugary Advice

With Halloween just around the corner, in many households it’s time for discussions on:

  • Whether or not to participate in the occasion?
  • If celebrating, what costume to wear?
  • If not celebrating, what other activity to substitute?
  • Regardless of the reason the family is gathering . . . how much sugar to consume?

I’ll leave topic 1) for another day but suffice it to say that we flip-flopped back and forth over the years of raising our five. For topics 2) and 3), I suggest grabbing a child under 18 and starting an “anything goes” brainstorming session. On the years our family didn’t “trick or treat” we did things like movie nights–home or at the theatre–(with everyone allowed their choice of one sometimes food), bowling, or games nights with friends. When the kids did go out, the costume ideas were amazing (our kids loved dressing up any day of the year so had lots of practise).

Topic 4), how much sugar to consume . . . I’ll wax on (more or less eloquently) for the duration of this post!

First, realize there is sugar in pretty well everything we eat today–barring homemade, from scratch savoury foods. Sugar intake in North America is at unprecedented rates with consumption of one of the most controversial sugars (although they are all currently taking a pretty bad rap), high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), having gone from 45 to 66 pounds/year in the US in the past 25 years.

Because of its prevalence–it’s the number one sweetener and number one source of calories in the US–and the fact it will be showing up in pretty well anything that ends up in your child’s “treat-gathering” pillowcase or store bought sometimes food choice this week, we’ll concentrate today’s post on evaluating whether HFCS is the all-natural sweetener the Corn Refiners Association promotes it as, or public enemy number one.

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Made from corn syrup, HFCS undergoes processing to increase its fructose content and is then mixed with pure corn syrup to reach a final product.

Created in mainly three varieties, HFCS-90 (approximately 90% fructose, 10 % glucose), HFCS-55 (approximately 55% fructose, 45% glucose—used predominately in soft drinks) and HFCS-42 (approximately 42% fructose, 58% glucose—used in many foods including baked goods) is used predominantly in processed foods of all types.

Labelled as high fructose corn syrup or HFCS in the US (and more recently with HFCS-90 as simply “fructose”), glucose/fructose in Canada and isoglucose or glucose-fructose syrup in Europe, HFCS was created in the late 1950s but not widely in use for human consumption until the 1980s.

Why Has HFCS Become the #1 Sweetener?

There are a variety of reasons for HFCS’s fairly meteoric rise to fame including:

  • HFCS is more economical—due to a number of factors (i.e. sugar tariffs, corn subsidies) high fructose corn syrup is cheaper than other sweeteners.
  • HFCS is sweeter—which means a little goes further and again can reduce food production costs because of its liquid and easily transportable state.
  • HFCS is easier to blend—because of its liquid state, high fructose corn syrup is easier to blend into products, particularly into beverages, which is why it is the most common sweetener in soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks.

Where Do We Find HFCS?

As mentioned, it’s pretty well everywhere. One finds HFCS in foodstuffs we think of as needing a sweetener such as cookies, cakes, fruit beverages, soft drinks or even possibly bread and cereals. It is also found, however, in foodstuffs that have you shaking your head as to why they’d need much of a sweetener at all; products such as yogurt, salad dressings, processed meats (i.e. ham and sausage), and a wide range of condiments.

By far, the most common place to find HFCS though is in soft drinks. And because of the economics, that means soda can be marketed for less cost or alternatively, larger sizes sold for a relatively cheaper price.

What do the HFCS Studies Show?

There are mixed opinions (not surprizingly, often depending upon who is funding the study) as to HFCS’s impact on wellness and as to whether or not high fructose corn syrup plays a starring role in the obesity and fatty liver disease epidemics happening in North America and now spreading worldwide.

Some research indicates HFCS is metabolized like table sugar and honey, and can be safely consumed in moderation. Following that train of thought means HFCS, like any other sugar that has gone through a refining process should be minimized but can be utilized on occasion.

Other studies, however, indicate that the body does not recognize HFCS in the same way as other sweeteners. There is concern that HFCS:

  • Does not stimulate insulin secretion
  • Does not increase leptin production (which works to decrease appetite)
  • Does not suppress production of ghrelin (which increases feelings of hunger)
  • Does not trigger satiety (the sense of fullness)
  • Does not metabolize to blood glucose but instead is converted to triglycerides or is stored as visceral body fat which is linked to fatty liver disease.

The other issue concerning many health care practitioners is the recognition that before 1980, the only primary cause for Type II diabetes and fatty liver disease was alcohol consumption. Until that time it was virtually unheard of for either disease to be seen in children. Currently, in the US, 20% of all children and 40% of children carrying excess weight are diagnosed with fatty liver disease. This is heartbreaking. Children are getting what have typically been alcohol-related diseases without the alcohol. Instead, their bodies are using a different compound, fructose, to foster these diseases, a compound metabolized in the same way.

It is possible, therefore, that increased links between ill health and sugar intake over the past few decades in North America are not simply connected to an increase in amount of total sugar ingested, though sucrose intake too has gone up. Instead, while increased sugar intake of any type is of concern, increased HFCS intake is of particular concern if only because of the fact HFCS has a slightly higher fructose content as compared to sucrose. Any way you look at the information, it still appears HFCS should be at the bottom of your list of sweeteners to use.

How Much Sugar is Too Much Sugar?

The blame for increased obesity rates and the rise in obesity related diseases cannot be placed on HFCS alone. The fact is increased consumption of fructose in general is a problem. Experts recommend eating no more than 25 grams of sugar a day from all sources—ones you can clearly see (i.e. noted in labeling, in fruit, in fruit juice) and ones that are hidden.

Want to know how many teaspoons of sugar are in a particular food product or what those grams look like in the kitchen? One teaspoon of granulated white sugar is equal to about 4.2 grams. To figure out how many spoonfuls of sugar are in a soda containing 44 grams of sugar, you would divide 44 by 4.2. That is over 10 teaspoons of sugar—more than the maximum daily-recommended amount. Makes a glass of homemade lemonade with stevia look pretty good!

How to Handle Halloween’s Tricks and Treats

1)       If you’re giving out treats, make them non sugary. Think packets of mixed nuts, healthy trail mix, instant tattoos or the most decent dollar store trinkets you can find. If, at your household, it’s not Halloween without chocolate then head to your local big box retailer for bags of individually sealed better quality mini-dark chocolate bars and hand out something you can share or snack on with a degree of healthful peace.

2)       If your kids are collecting, set some guidelines before they head out the door. Discuss with them what can be kept and what will be given/thrown away.  Michelle, one of our IB nutritionist partners, allows her son to keep the number of candy pieces as his age for that year. The remainder is given back to houses that leave “help yourself” candy buckets outside their doors. Or offer to buy candy back, at an agreeable price per pound ($1/lb. seems to be the going rate), so your kids can use the cash to purchase a new game or toy. Alternatively, check if local organizations have a Halloween candy buyback option such as these US or Langley, BC organizations.

3)       Don’t let the sugar high occur on a daily basis. If you’ve let your kids keep a small amount of their “haul” then divide it up and have it one day a week for the next 3-4 weeks. Eat clean on and around that day and be sure to pair the sweetness with some nuts to mitigate the sugar high.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

And finally, have fun. That means even at an early age, talking with your kids about dopamine responses. We know that sugar lights up our dopamine receptors like a megawatt spotlight! Help your kids understand that it happens not so much because of a “pleasure” centre response but because our brain is causing us to feel psyched about an anticipated reward. The reality is that sugar is a poor reward. It will spike our anxiety and blood sugar levels and then shortly drop us like a hot potato, both in energy and in satisfaction. Instead have your kids feel excited and anticipating the reward of time with friends, the joy of designing a great costume or a fun family night. Those are rewards that last and are worth remembering and anticipating for next Halloween!

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