I’m not talking just any sugar, however (even though I am skeptical and try to stay away from all sugar). Instead, science is looking at one particular kind that’s already a source of worry and controversy when it comes to health-high fructose corn syrup.
Researchers from the University of California wanted to understand if the body really does process different sugars in different ways. Before we look at their results, let’s look at why sugar isn’t always just sugar.
Most of us think of sugar as one thing-that which adds sweetness to our foods and beverages. But in reality, there are many different types of sugar or sweeteners. The most well known, from which table sugar is derived, is called “sucrose,” and comes from sugar beets or sugar cane. But then there are others, like fruit sugar (fructose), milk sugar (lactose), malt sugar (maltose), and sugar from honey or sweet fruits (glucose). All these natural sugars have different chemical makeups, and so theoretically, could act differently in the body. (I’m not even going into artificial sugars here like aspartame and xylitol-that’s another post.)
So where does high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) come in? This sweetener doesn’t naturally exist like the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph. It comes from corn syrup, which is made from corn, but then it’s processed to convert some of its natural glucose content into fructose (a sweeter sugar), all to produce a sweeter product used as a sugar substitute. The idea is to make high fructose corn syrup particularly sweet so that less is required to sweeten foods and beverages, which all adds up to more profits.
HFCS is so cheap and effective that manufacturers love it. Consequently, it now shows up in not only soft drinks and desserts, but breads, cereals, breakfast bars, yogurts, lunchmeats, soups, and condiments. If you’re not reading your ingredient labels, you could be consuming lots of HFCS on a daily basis. In fact, between 1970 and 1990, our consumption of HFCS increased by more than 1,000 percent!
That fact alone is believed to be contributing to our nationwide obesity epidemic. Sugar of any kind fills the body with empty calories, and if you eat too much, you’re bound to put on the pounds (and suffer all the health effects related to excess fat). But HFCS, in particular, is also suspected of creating other health problems. Because of how it’s processed, it may be less healthy than other types of sweeteners. So far the science has produced mixed results, but researchers are on the case, and new evidence is coming to light.
Which brings us back to our UCLA study. The findings show exactly what many have suspected-that all sugars are not the same, and that the body does react differently to different kinds. In this case, fructose sugar caused cancer cells to reproduce and spread in a way that glucose did not. In tests, pancreatic cancer cells quickly fed on refined fructose and used it to divide and proliferate rapidly in the body. This wasn’t the case with glucose.
“Importantly, fructose and glucose metabolism are quite different,” says the research paper. Author Dr. Anthony Heaney added, “Hopefully, at the federal level there will be some effort to step back on the amount of high fructose corn syrup in our diets.”
You know how long it takes our regulatory agencies to make any changes, so for now, avoiding HFCS is up to you. It’s simple-just read labels, and don’t buy foods with HFCS on the ingredient list. Check out the organic aisle for more HFCS-free options.
Do you avoid HFCS? Have any tips for shopping healthy?
Photo courtesy kertong via Flickr.com.