It’s hard to view sugar as a vice. Consumption is legal and often encouraged by friends and family. It’s available everywhere. It’s enjoyed by young and old alike and sweet treats have been a pivotal part of our celebrations and get-togethers for generations.
Simply put, sweetness provides a pleasurable experience. A few nibbles of a cookie or sips of a soda delivers a delicious rush of temporary gratification. But sweetness also has a bitter side that is becoming harder to ignore. For decades, studies have revealed a close association between excess sugar consumption and disease.
At the same time, we also possess a powerful drive that can be even more difficult to ignore. We naturally seek sweetness. It tastes fantastic and nothing delivers quicker energy to our cells than a simple monosaccharide sugar known as glucose.
Since long before mankind understood anything about nutrition, our tongue led us to sweetness. We sought things like berries, peaches, melons, or some other locally available fruit whenever it came into season.
Over the last century, however, our access to sweetness has increased tremendously. Today, finding a sweet fix has never been easier. But rather than seasonal fruit, our world is saturated with refined sweeteners which are added in bulk to an enormous portion of our food supply.
The bulk sweetener most of us are familiar with is table sugar, also known as sucrose, which is a more complex molecule than glucose. When we digest sucrose, it breaks down into glucose and another monosaccharide sugar known as fructose.
But you don’t have to be a food chemist to understand why table sugar is so popular. It not only tastes great, it’s also very cheap. In a world of rapidly rising food prices, a dollar will buy a lot more granulated sugar than it will fruit. These refined sweet crystals also don’t rot like fruit, giving it a much longer shelf life.
But there is another even cheaper shelf stable sweetener that has become nearly as popular as sugar in the United States (although it has never received much attention in the rest of the world). It’s called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
A Familiar Taste for Less
Our first taste of HFCS probably started with a Coca-Cola in 1980. Coke was the first beverage manufacturer to swap pure cane sugar for HFCS in its signature soda. Then other soda manufacturers began to follow suit. One by one, the United States food and beverage industry pulled away from sugar, and turned its attention toward corn-based HFCS.
United States government subsidies on corn prices in 1970 definitely sweetened the deal. It drove down the price of the nation’s corn, incentivizing the agriculture industry to increase production and to find new ways to utilize the crop. Corn growers looked to a 1958 invention that chemically altered cornstarch to boost its fructose content. The procedure was tweaked and refined over the course of the 1970s and within a few years HFCS was born.
It’s not that consumers were looking for a better tasting sweetener. The processed food industry found it attractive because it delivered a glucose/fructose taste profile similar to cane sugar, but for less money.
Fructose is the same type of sugar found in fruit, but HFCS turns up the volume (some formulations contain more than 50 percent fructose).
This high-volume fructose content is a big reason that HFCS gets so much flack. When HFCS began flooding the food supply, never before had so many people consumed so much fructose. The rise of HFCS also happened to correlate in a rise of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health problems.
The body breaks down fructose differently than glucose. Researchers note more insulin resistance with high fructose consumption. Fructose also alters our hunger and satiety hormones in ways glucose does not.
As a result, HFCS has developed a sinister reputation. Although the American Medical Association stated in 2008 that “…high fructose syrup does not appear to contribute to obesity more than other caloric sweeteners,” some studies suggest otherwise. For example, a 2010 study from Princeton University found that HFCS consumption prompts considerably more weight gain in rats than table sugar.
While there is still no scientific consensus on the issue, public perception increasingly favors plain old sugar. In 2014, the National Business Journal conducted a survey to find which food ingredients consumers most tried to avoid. HFCS topped the list, followed by hydrogenated oils.
This unfavorable impression among consumers has inspired the food and beverage industry to rebrand HFCS, with names such as “corn sugar,” “fructose isolate,” or “maize syrup.”
But this name game has just made consumers more suspicious. Some manufacturers have simply switched back to cane sugar amid the HFCS controversy. Labels proudly boast “No High Fructose Corn Syrup.” The message is that cane sugar is a healthier alternative.
But according to Dr. Eric Potter, an internal medicine specialist near Nashville Tennessee, all concentrated sweeteners can profoundly impact our health. Potter says whether it’s table sugar or HFCS, they both increase inflammation and suppress immune function, leading to a variety of health problems. That’s why he encourages all his patients to reduce their intake, no matter which sweetener they favor.
“A lot of our patients come in with inflammatory conditions, whether it’s arthritis, infection, toxicity, and their bodies are often inflamed. And while we’re trying to fix those root causes, sugar can throw a little more gasoline on the fire,” Potter said. “By cutting that down, their symptoms get better. When their immune system is not so suppressed, their body can heal faster and they can recover a lot quicker even with things they’re not getting treated for.”
The demonization of HFCS has even prompted some to avoid fruit, because it is also a rich source of fructose. But Potter explains that whole fruit contains other virtues that keep it from causing the problems associated with HFCS. For example, fresh fruit is full of vitamins, antioxidants, and enzymes that nourish your cells in addition to providing a sweet jolt of energy and pleasure. Fruit is also full of fiber, which means it doesn’t flood your system with sugar as quickly as table sugar or HFCS.
Take away the fiber, however, and fruit can become problematic.
“With fruit, you have to digest the fiber, the peel of the apple or peach, the pulp of an orange. But when you get juice, all the structure that slows things down is removed. So, you’re drinking something that is just pure flavor and sugar,” Potter said. “It is a fruit sugar, but orange juice is going to send your blood sugar up just as fast as eating a cookie in terms of the sugar content.”
Even honey, considered by many to be a health food because of the vitamins, enzymes, and nutritional features it possesses, can also trigger health issues. Potter says for all its advantages, a heavy helping of honey can cause the same inflammatory issues that sugar and HFCS inflict.
Another big drawback for HFCS is that it’s not just concentrated sugar—it also contains industrial chemicals. In addition to the process of turning cornstarch into HFCS, there are also the chemicals involved in growing the corn. The vast majority of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to survive heavy spraying of a herbicide known as glyphosate.
Of course, sugar beets may also be genetically modified. However, it requires a lot more corn to make HFCS than it takes beets to make sugar.
“High fructose corn syrup is not going to be organic, and you’re processing a ton of corn to make a sweet substance from something that wasn’t originally sweet, and you’re using a lot of chemicals,” Potter said. “Whereas if you go out and get organic beet sugar, coconut sugar, and some of these other alternatives—yes, you’re still getting the sugar part, but you’re not getting a lot of other chemicals, whether it’s pesticides, herbicides, industrial chemicals used to process high fructose corn syrup.’’
No matter which concentrated sweetener you consume, reducing your intake can make a big difference in your health. Potter says cutting back on sugar can reduce your inflammation, which in turn can lower blood pressure. Also, less sugar in your blood means you reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Plus, it will give your liver a break.
“When your liver has to process excess sugar, it will turn it into a type of fat called triglycerides. When that fat builds up you get fatty liver,” Potter said.
Some research also suggests a correlation between high sugar intake and an increase in cancer, though causation is not so clear.
Still, there are many unmistakable benefits to eating less sugar. However, this can be a lot easier to say than to do. Sugar is a highly craved substance. Some studies suggest it may almost be as addictive as cocaine.
But there are some strategies that can make sugar reduction a little easier.
First, look at labels, and develop a sugar radar. Sugar and HFCS can be found in a lot of foods you might not expect, like bread, crackers, tomato sauce, and much more. And if you’re trying to stay away from HFCS in particular, get familiar with its alternative monikers such as natural corn syrup, maize syrup, fructose syrup, fructose isolate, fructose, glucose syrup, and cystalline fructose.
Potter says the better patients get at rooting out these hidden sugars, the better they tend to feel and, over time, the less sugar you eat, the less you need in order to feel satisfied.
As you work to whittle down your taste for sweetness, you can try sweeteners that don’t cause the inflammatory issues that sugar and HFCS do. Potter’s top picks include stevia and monk fruit. These are natural, no-calorie sweeteners that are minimally processed. However, keep in mind that they don’t taste nearly as good as sugar and they can be a bit pricey. Other examples of natural sugar substitutes include a category known as sugar alcohols. Examples include xylitol, erythritol, and other strange words ending in “-ol.” Sugar alcohols don’t have the bitter aftertaste of monk fruit and stevia, but they may cause gas and diarrhea.
Synthetic sugar substitutes such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose aim to bypass the problems associated with sugar sweetness, but Potter warns that some can do more harm than good.
“There are some artificial sweeteners that can actually worsen your craving and worsen some of the metabolic impacts of sugar. The longer these have been available the more studies show that they are not as health promoting as we originally hoped they would be,” Potter said.
In a processed food world filled with sugar and HFCS, it can be nearly impossible to avoid inflammatory sweeteners entirely. But how you consume them can reduce their negative effects. For example, Potter urges that when you do eat something sweet, don’t eat it on an empty stomach. Make sure you eat plenty of fiber and protein beforehand.
“When you do eat sugar, make sure you eat it last,” Potter said. “When you eat sugar on an empty stomach, you’re going to get a lot more of the adverse effects because it’s going into your bloodstream a lot faster. Whereas if you eat protein, a salad with some fiber in it, then a small cookie isn’t going to have the same negative impact as it would if you had it on an empty stomach.”