Not So Sweet

Spring time means picnics, fairs and festivals and other such fun gatherings. Drink options at these events often consist of big bins full of soda cans. Coke and Pepsi start to become such a ubiquitous part of your warm season gatherings that it becomes hard to remember you ever hesitated to crack open a can of bubbly brown water.

So, what is it that makes pop – as the Midwesterners say – so bad? Sugar, obviously. But, more specifically, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS).

High fructose corn syrup was introduced to the American market in 1975 and the percentage of obese Americans has steadily increased since that time.1 But is there really a correlation?

Well yes, for a few different reasons….

Reason #1. High Fructose Corn Syrup is cheap….about half the price of sugar. It came about around the same time that Nixon’s war on poverty aimed to make food as affordable as possible to keep it from entering into political race debates. But the low cost of HFCS combined with the extra sweet taste (HFCS tastes sweeter than sugar) means that it has found its way into lots of the foods on our grocery story shelves – to improve palatability with a low price.

Reason #2. We are all eating more calories than we were 30 years ago. Why? It’s not because we have more food available that we did 30 years ago or because people are hungrier now than they were then. It’s because when we consume HFCS, the negative feedback loops that tell our body that we’re full don’t function. The take home point here is that not all calories are created equal. We begin to see that a calorie of “normal” sugar is not going to deceive – and ultimately harm – our body to the extent that a calorie of HFCS (or fructose or sucrose) will.

Reason #3. Around the time that HFCS was invented, Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in America. With logic that has since revealed itself to be faulty, the USDA and AMA concluded that dietary fat was a major contributor to heart disease. It was recommended that Americans decrease their fat consumption from 40% of their caloric intake to 30%. And they did! Suddenly our grocery carts were filled with low-fat this and fat-free that. But take out the fat and things don’t taste very good. What helps things taste better? Sugar!

We now understand that increased intake of sugar directly causes diabetes. So those low-fat diets didn’t really help our waistlines at all. We also learned that, in the body, HFCS essentially gets converted quickly to fat. So while we may see that can of soda as being full of carbohydrates, it’s actually leading to increased fat when it gets in our body.

Reason #4. And that fructose is not only hurting our waistlines but our cardiovascular health as well. In fact, chronic fructose consumption leads to a variety of problems, the sum total of which we refer to as Metabolic Syndrome. High blood pressure, dyslipidemia, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, inflammation, obesity, insulin resistence, leptin resistence and de neuvo lipogensis can also result from chronic fructose consumption. Metabolic Syndrome is often the precursor to one developing Type 2 Diabetes. So can we conclude, then, that chronic fructose consumption – like one would experience if one were to drink soda on a daily basis – can cause Type 2 Diabetes? Unfortunately, yes, studies that have looked at just that have revealed a statistically significant trend.2

Reason #5. So part of this timeline includes the explosion of processed foods. Quick snacks and quickly prepared meals are readily available for our busy lives and are also one of our main exports. All these shelf-happy foods have one key nutrient removed to help with their stability. Fiber! Fast food is almostly completely devoid of fiber. An average American consumes 12 g of fiber a day when we should be consuming 50! This contributes to all the problems previously mentioned – without fiber, our satiety signals are off leading to obesity; and without fiber, our cardiovascular health suffers.

Reason #6. This brings us back to that hunger cycle While fructose may seem “just like sugar”, in the body it is not metabolized the same way at all. It requires the liver to do a lot more work and also doesn’t ever tell us to stop eating! Fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion – the way glucose and other natural carbohydrates to – and without insulin, there is not leptin which is the hormone that tells our body we may be full.

Reason #7. The metabolism of HFCS in the liver is actually quite similar to the metabolism of alcohol. With alcohol and HFCS, the majority of the calories are metabolized by the liver and get converted to VLDL – a lipoprotein molecule that contributes to heart disease and obesity. This means that chronic intake of either can lead to fatty liver as well as abdominal obesity. You know the famous “beer gut”? Well it’s not that different from the abdominal obesity that results form chronic soda consumption. Chronic intake of alcohol or HFCS can also lead to insulin resistence in the muscles.

The liver is also the only organ that can metabolize fructose and, because of this, the liver can get a bit overwhelmed doing so! With regular sugar – or glucose – every cell in the body is able to break it down, but not so with HFCS. Because of this extra load on the liver, uric acid is produced during the metabolism of HFCS which can then contribute to diseases such as high blood pressure and gout.3

When we look at the biochemistry of High Fructose Corn Syrup, it’s amazing that a molecule that is so ubiquitous in the processed foods we consume can have such detrimental effects on our health. So while high fructose corn syrup sweetened beverages often make an appearance at family gatherings, events, and outings in warm weather seasons, be mindful of what you’re drinking and stay hydrated in the most natural way possible!


1. Using the new definition, the estimated age-adjusted percentage of overweight U.S. adults between the ages of 20 and 74 increased from about 43 percent in 1960-2 to about 54 percent in 1988-94. Although the age-adjusted fraction of the population in the “pre-obesity” category, with a BMI between 25 and 29.9, has been fairly stable since 1970, the fraction of the population that is obese – that is, with a BMI greater than 30 – increased from about 14 percent in the mid-1970s to about 29 percent in 2000. Because obesity is correlated with a variety of health problems, the increase in markedly overweight individuals has generated substantial concern among public health officials.

2. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women.JAMA 2004 Aug 25; 292(8): 927-34

3. Nguyen S, Choi HK, Lustig RH, Hsu C. Sugar Sweetened Beverages, Serum Uric Acid, and Blood Pressure in Adolescents. J Pediatr 2009 Jun; 154(6): 807-813

4. Kim J et al. Trends in Overweight from 1980 through 2001 among Preschool-Aged Children Enrolled in a Health Maintenance Organization. Obesity 2006 14; 1107-1112
Feig DI, Soletsky B, Johnson RJ. Effect of allopurinol on blood pressure of adolescents with newly diagnosed essential hypertension: a randomized trial. JAMA 2008 Aug 27; 300(8): 924-32