31 October 2010

Who's afraid of a little something sweet?

There are few food ingredients that conjure up more fear in the public mind than sugar and sugar substitutes found in manufactured products. This fear can be bolstered by a common ploy some companies and organizations use to create panic and push their products by smearing nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners used by their competitors.

The hysteria surrounding fructose is one such example — a simple fruit sugar found in almost every natural food on the planet has been unfairly targeted as the scapegoat for all of the extra pounds on America’s waistlines.

But although it’s appropriate for people to watch for extra calories from all sources, including sugars, reasonable amounts of fructose each day as part of a balanced diet is not really anything to worry about.

What’s alarming is the attacks on fructose have become so frequent that people have started to believe that the sugar is inherently harmful to health. The hype has even led people to believe they must reduce their intake of fruit and vegetables — now that’s frightening!

It's time to put a stop to the demonizing and scare tactics.

But wait a sec… isn't it true that high-fructose corn syrup (containing 55 percent fructose, 45 percent glucose) is a cheap sugar source widely available in sodas and processed foods, and is uniquely responsible for causing the obesity epidemic?

No, not at all. The initial study that posed this hypothesis has been largely discredited. According to the nutrition science experts, there is no evidence that overconsumption of a single nutrient, such as fructose from high-fructose corn syrup, has led people to gain more weight than other foods (1,2).

The fact is Americans live in a toxic, stressful environment, overeat everything and simply do not exercise enough.

Additionally, in 2009, a supplement in the Journal of Nutrition in 2009 called for a stop to the demonization of fructose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) (1). They wrote, "Evidence is presented that HFCS does not pose a unique dietary risk in healthy individuals or diabetics."

In fact, in the same paper, the author seeks to dispel other myths about fructose by pointing out the following facts:

- Fructose coexists with glucose in all common nutritive sweeteners including honey, fruits and vegetables, agave nectar, and regular table sugar (50 percent fructose, 50 percent glucose)
- The human body is well adapted to handling sugars in normal ranges
- Replacing all the fructose in manufactured foods with other nutritive sweeteners would not improve health or solve the obesity crisis

There is also a list of good reasons for why people should continue to have fructose in their diets.
- Fructose is sweeter than glucose, so a balance of both helps food manufacturers use less sugar overall in foods.
- Since fructose is absorbed differently than glucose, it blunts a glycemic response, leading to lower insulin levels.
- Fructose makes things with naturally unpleasant flavors (like vitamins and minerals) taste better.
Unlike non-caloric, artificial sweeteners, fructose helps to fuel the body with energy.

Eating fructose in normal ranges daily, as part of a nutritionally balanced diet, shouldn't haunt you or your waistline. As long as you’re not getting too much fructose, or any other added sugar, or using added sugars to replace nutrient-dense foods (2, 3), then there’s nothing to fear.

So, what of the scare tactics and supposed experts saying we need to limit fructose to only a few grams daily to avoid overproduction of fats in the blood and obesity? These claims are totally, utterly, unfounded.

The truth is that fructose is metabolized in the liver and is first used to replenish liver glycogen stores, which are in turn used to fuel the body during fasting. The average human liver has the capacity to store around 85 to 100 grams or more of liver glycogen.

When fructose is consumed in a normal range as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did when they ate fruits and vegetables all year round – and as part of a reduced-calorie diet for building muscle and losing weight – it and its cousin sweeteners such as sucrose, glucose, honey, agave nectar, fruit juice concentrates, and sugar alcohols really aren’t so freaky after all.


1. White JS. Supplement: The State of the Science on Dietary Sweeteners Containing Fructose. J Nutr, 139(6), 1219S-1227S, June 2009, doi:10.3945/jn.108.097998.
2. Fulgoni V. Supplement: High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): Everything You Wanted to Know, but Were Afraid to Ask. Am J of Clin Nutr, 88(6), 1715S, December 2008, doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.25825A.
3. Thompson FE, McNeel TS, Dowling EC, Midthune D, Morrissette M, Zeruto CA. Interrelationships of added sugars intake, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity in adults in the United States: National Health Interview Survey, 2005. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109:1376
4. Drewnowski A, Specter SE. Poverty and obesity: the role of energy density and energy costs. Am J of Clin Nutr, 79(1), 6-16, January 2004.

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