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HFCS

These days you can’t look anywhere and not see something about how bad High Fructose Corn Syrup is for you.  Naturally, the makers of HFCS don’t particularly agree with that and as of this writing, the Corn Refiners Association has put together a pretty slick website with the title “Sweet Surprise”.  As with most debates such as this, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

You’ll get no argument from me that gram for gram; HFCS has the same amount of calories as any other sugar product.  There are a bunch of properties of HFCS that actually make it better than sugar including how it resists crystallization in baking and how it retains moisture better so prepared foods don’t dry out.  Of course, we’d all be better off not eating most of the foods that contain HFCS even if pure cane sugar was substituted.  They don’t call them “empty calories” for nothing you know!  For instance, soda pop (no matter how it is sweetened) is basically liquid candy and heavily sweetened fruit drinks aren’t much better. Even sports drinks that contain sweeteners aren’t really that good for you (water is better!).   Most commercial baked goods are loaded with fat in addition to any sweetener (why do you think they taste so good?). 

The pitch is that in moderation there is nothing wrong with HFCS.  Since I am a firm believer in the “all things in moderation” theory I really can’t argue.  One thing I certainly agree with is that HFCS is being scapegoated when it is accused as being the cause of the obesity epidemic in the United States.  It certainly has a part, but frankly it’s somewhat of a bit part.  On the whole, I believe that a sedentary lifestyle is a far greater contributor to the situation than anything else. Getting back to HFCS, of course, you have to define “moderation”.  Since this is not a biology paper I don’t plan on getting into this too deep.  Besides, I’m not a biologist anyway and if I don’t keep it simple I won’t understand it!  I have experimented a bit on myself and while a one man self-conducted experiment can hardly be called scientific or conclusive, in my particular case the results are meaningful for the only person who really matters…me!  The bottom line is that since I have just about 99.9% cut HFCS out of my diet I feel better and have been able to maintain my weight. Perhaps there have been other lifestyle changes that have contributed to this, but on the rare occasions that I have consumed HFCS containing beverages I’ve felt somewhat icky (I don’t know the scientific term here) afterward.  I also keep coming up with the notion that while HFCS might have the same calories as sugar, but your body doesn’t quite process it in the same way.  I’ve done a little reading and it looks like there are there are three hormones involved here.  The first is insulin.  Eating anything with a lot of sugar of any type can spike your insulin level.  You’ve heard of a sugar high followed by a crash; well that’s insulin at work.  More troubling regarding HFCS is how it may affect a couple lesser known (but very important) hormones called leptin and ghrelin.

Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells. It is present in the blood stream and its level is pretty much in direct proportion to the amount of body fat a person has; the “fatter” the person, the more leptin is produced.

Leptin's primary function is to act on the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls appetite and satiety. It tells the hypothalamus to reduce appetite (because fat stores are high), which (should) result in decreased food intake.

On the other hand, when fat stores are low, for example, after dieting, leptin levels are reduced. This causes the hypothalamus to increase appetite. An increased appetite obviously results in the desire for greater food intake and a corresponding increase in body fat stores (unless of course you are exercising or otherwise consuming the energy brought in as food). More body fat results in more leptin being produced, which then tells the hypothalamus to decrease appetite, leading to a reduced food intake. This is a classic feedback mechanism.  The problem is that your body wants to return to the initial weight (your set point).  This is not a good thing and must be managed. 

Leptin may be one of the main hormones responsible for rebound weight gain after a diet.  I believe the problem here is that if you lose a lot of fat in to short of a time period, to the hypothalamus it comes across as nearly a step input.  If you gradually move towards a new steady state, you can “trick” the hypothalamus into believing that everything is ok. (Kind of like sneaking up on someone)

Leptin is accurately described as an anti-starvation hormone because low levels lead to increased hunger. In the past it was described as an anti-obesity hormone but researchers have since discovered that obese people (who produce large amounts of leptin) are resistant to its action. This is in a similar way that some people are resistant to insulin.

Ghrelin is a hormone secreted by the stomach. Like leptin, it acts on the hypothalamus but in the case ghrelin it increases appetite rather than decreases it (as leptin does).

Our bodies love operating at a steady state.  In a perfect world, we would increase our leptin level (which we can’t do since it is directly proportional to our total body fat), decrease our ghrelin level (to indicate we are satisfied) and keep our insulin level constant (to prevent spikes and crashes).  Of course, we really can’t do anything about our leptin level since it is directly proportional to our total mass of body fat; as we lose fat, leptin goes down.  The problem with HFCS is that there is some evidence that in addition to raising our insulin level it also acts to decrease leptin (thus signaling the body to eat) and increase ghrelin levels (again, signaling the body to eat).  This is exactly the opposite of what we want to happen!

Seriously, the best explanation of how the hypothalamus works that I have ever seen was the now discontinued “Cranium Command” show in the Wonders of Life Pavilion at EPCOT at Walt Disney World in Florida.  Your hypothalamus is basically an automatic control system.  The only input it gets is a reading of the level of these hormones.  Based on these readings it sends out a signal to the brain as to what to do regarding food intake.  While it can be done with great discipline, in reality it is nearly impossible for you to manually override these signals.  What happens is that a severely overweight person feels like they are starving because their leptin level has been depressed.  The body’s automatic control system is essentially flashing the “eat” light to the brain even though you have plenty of fuel (in the form of fat).  It’s almost like your gas gauge being stuck on E.  You keep pumping fuel into the tank thinking its empty when in reality it is gushing out the overflow vent.  The only problem is that unlike a rigid tank, your “tank” can easily expand to store this extra fuel.  This is how fat people get fatter.  During the period where I had somewhat lost control of my weight this is exactly what happened to me.  I was drinking too much soda pop and was still hungry.

It gets even worse when you compare fructose to sucrose.  Yes, they have the same caloric content, but in addition to the hormone problems, your body doesn’t handle fructose in the same manner as sucrose.  Basically, fructose likes to go straight to fat.  That’s why HFCS and fructose in general is a one way express ticket to Fat City.

I’ve seen HFCS referred to as “The Devil’s Candy” and think that may be a little of a stretch.  Still, if you are serious about your body, you need to avoid (or at least severely reduce) HFCS; period!  Since this probably isn’t 100% possible, you should at least be aware of HFCS and do your best to manage it.  Of course, any sugars will have a similar effect if you eat too much of them.  Like I said before, they don’t call them empty calories for nothing.

Has HFCS gotten a bum rap?  In a lot of ways yes, but then it’s easier to blame a sweetener for being fat than the lack of exercise.

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