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High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), also known as glucose-fructose, isoglucose, and glucose-fructose, is a sweetener derived from corn starch. It is manufactured through a process discovered by Richard Marshall and Earl Kooi in 1957 whereby glucose molecules are converted into fructose. This process, which was not perfected until 1970, converts corn starch into a syrup that is basically 100% glucose. The Clinton Corn Processing Company (now Archer-Daniel-Midland or ADM) began marketing HFCS in the 1970s. Since the early 1980s, HFCS and variants have largely replaced sucrose as the main sweetener in many processed food products and soft drinks in the United States. The two most prevalent types of HFCS are HFCS 42, used in baked goods, breakfast cereals, and other processed foods, and HFCS 55, which is mainly used in the production of soft drinks. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this sweetener is no more or less safe for consumption than other sweeteners such as table sugar or honey. Since its inception into the mainstream food market in the 1970’s, the increase in obesity rates and diabetes have skyrocketed as even more American food manufacturers switched from using real sugar to HFCS in their products. Sugar and HFCS appear to be anything but safe and should not be in the food system in anywhere near the quantities currently available. While it is not the only cause, the increased presence of HFCS in the food system has been a major contributor to the higher incidence of diabetes, obesity, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) irrespective of the quantity consumed.
Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup are purported to be safe. The safety of these products is codified in U.S. Federal Law. The Code of Federal Regulations states “The direct human food ingredients listed in this part have been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and affirmed to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for the purposes and under the conditions prescribed” (21 CFR 184.1(a)). Sucrose, a.k.a. table sugar, is specifically listed in 21 CFR 184.1854(a) and HFCS is in 21 CFR 184.1866(a). The law expressly does not limit sugar or HFCS usage provided it is produced using “current good manufacturing practice” (21 CFR 184.1854(c) and 21 CFR 184.1866(c)). The FDA states “there is [no] difference in safety between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners” (“High Fructose Corn Syrup Questions and Answers”). However, in the next sentence, the FDA acknowledges “The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that everyone limit consumption of all added sugars, including HFCS and sucrose,” a recommendation that is included in the current 2020-2025 guidelines for Americans. Meanwhile, the process for determining if something qualifies as GRAS does not involve any in-house testing to determine if the substance is safe, which was what was done prior to 1997. Instead, the process now requires “manufacturers request review and approval of GRAS status by providing a summary of scientific evidence to the FDA to support their requests” (Oberleitner). The FDA will then add the substance to the GRAS list if they agree with the manufacturer’s analysis regarding the substance. Sugar has been GRAS since the guidelines were established in 1969 with no further safety analysis done.
Obesity has skyrocketed since 1980, a mere ten years after the introduction of High Fructose Corn Syrup into the mainstream food system. Quoting data from surveys done by the National Center for Health Statistics, between 1976 and 1980, 16% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 in the United States were either overweight, obese, or severely obese (Fryar, et al). The incidence of overweight, obesity, or severe obesity in adults aged 20 to 74 during the same period was 48.5%. During 2017-2018, those numbers increased to 41.5% of children and 82.7% of adults. Meanwhile, the prevalence of HFCS has increased. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the average American consumed 11.2 pounds of HFCS per year in 1980 (“Sugar and Sweeteners Yearbook Tables” Table 49). By the year 2000, this increased to 38.7 pounds per year. Consumption of HFCS by Americans has since decreased down to 23.2 pounds a year, but it is still more than double the amount consumed in 1980. The link between consumption of sweetened drinks and obesity, including those sweetened with HFCS, has led many countries to pass taxes on sweetened drinks like sodas and sports drinks. The goal of these taxes is to increase the cost of sweetened beverages to discourage their consumption. Dr. Simon Capewell, a professor at the Institute of Population Health at the University of Liverpool stated back in 2016 when the U.K. Parliament passed a sweetened beverage tax that "Reductions in sugar consumption will directly translate into a lower incidence of Type 2 Diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and common cancers" (qtd. in Colborne).
Diabetes rates have skyrocketed since the introduction of High Fructose Corn Syrup as well. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of confirmed cases of diabetes was 5.53 million Americans in 1980 (“Long Term Trends in Diabetes” ). In 2022, 37.3 million Americans had diabetes, and 96 million Americans had pre-diabetes (“National Diabetes Statistics Report”). When diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, it is standard medical advice to limit your consumption of sugars, the consumption of which requires insulin to be secreted by the pancreas, which increases insulin levels in the body. Type 2 diabetics have become more resistant to the effects of insulin, a condition known as insulin resistance (IR) in which the pancreas is forced to produce more insulin to compensate. A 2021 study entitled “Contribution of insulin resistance to the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverage intake and a constellation of cardio-metabolic abnormalities in adolescents” found that “higher sugar-sweetened beverage intake was associated with higher levels of HOMA1-IR and HOMA2-IR, and the two IR biomarkers were positively correlated with metabolic dysfunction clustering” (Wu, et al). The cluster specifically refers to metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including obesity, insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, hypertension, low HDL-cholesterol, and raised VLDL-triglycerides.
Prior to 1980, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) was not a known condition. The first case reports mentioning fatty liver disease in adults who did not consume alcohol appeared in 1980. In 1984, similar reports started appearing in children. In his book “The Case Against Sugar”, Journalist Gary Taubes describes NAFLD as “indistinguishable from the fatty liver disease that alcohol is known to cause” (204). According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 24% of Americans now have NAFLD (“Definition & Facts of NAFLD & NASH"). In addition, up to 6.5% of Americans have nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is the form of NAFLD in which you have inflammation and damage to the liver, in addition to excess fat. This may lead to cirrhosis, in which the liver is scarred and permanently damaged. A 2021 study published in the Oxford University Press entitled “Consuming Sucrose-or HFCS-sweetened Beverages Increases Hepatic Lipid and Decreases Insulin Sensitivity in Adults” shows that “Consumption of both sucrose-and HFCS-SB induced detrimental changes in hepatic lipid, insulin sensitivity, and circulating lipids, lipoproteins and uric acid in 2 weeks” (Sigala, et al). While the study period was short, which was acknowledged by the study authors, “they are indicative of the pattern of early phase metabolic dysfunction that underlies the epidemics of metabolic syndrome, [cardiovascular disease], [Type 2 Diabetes], and NAFLD.”
The case against sugar and high fructose corn syrup and its contribution to death-dealing diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and NAFLD should be obvious. The statistics clearly show a strong association with the consumption of sweeteners that federal law codifies as “safe” and the increase in prevalence of metabolic syndrome throughout America. Campaigns aimed at reducing obesity in our country still fail to recognize the nefarious role sugar is playing in keeping Americans sick. Much like the overconsumption of alcohol can cause cirrhosis, the overconsumption of sugar is the sole cause of NAFLD, a disease not known to exist prior to the introduction of HFCS. Although many people have had some success in weight reduction thru weight loss programs such as Atkins and Keto, the root cause of the weight gain and diseases remains the constant consumption of sugar, whether it is in the form of HFCS, table sugar, or artificial sweeteners, all of which have been labeled as GRAS in federal law. Until this root cause of the epidemic is addressed and the sugar industry is finally held accountable for the product which through the years has ultimately taken more lives than all wars combined, then and only then will Americans begin to see the real cost of sugar and HFCS.Download
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