In 2004, three researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggesting the rise in obesity might be linked to the rise in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup. The paper led to a wave of research and a chorus of popular concern over the cheap, ubiquitous liquid sweetener.
The hypothesis was controversial and launched a backlash against the corn-based sweetener, which because of agricultural subsidies for corn in the USA was much cheaper than cane or beet sugar. It became nutritional dogma in some circles that sugar was healthy, and high-fructose corn syrup was not.
Now, the tide of research, if not public opinion, has shifted. This week, five papers published in a supplement to Clinical Nutrition find no special link between consumption of high-fructose corn syrup and obesity. One paper was written by Barry Popkin, a co-author on the original 2004 paper. "It doesn't appear that when you consume high-fructose corn syrup, you have any different total effect on appetite than if you consume any other sugar," he says.
The kind of high-fructose syrup that sweetens almost all soft drinks in the USA is made from corn and consists of 55% fructose and 42% glucose, both of which are slightly different sugars. Table sugar, which scientists call sucrose, is made from sugar cane or sugar beets and consists of 50% fructose and 50% glucose.
"People think high-fructose corn syrup is the devil and table sugar is natural," but that's not necessarily true, says Elizabeth Parks, a professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She was not part of the research.
Though high-fructose corn syrup makes up about 50% of the sweeteners used in the USA, worldwide it's only about 10%, says John White, an independent researcher whose paper was published in the supplement to the journal. "But obesity isn't just a US problem," he says.
At high levels of consumption, fructose, whether from high-fructose corn syrup or from table sugar, increases triglycerides (fat) in the bloodstream, which could be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, says Peter Havel, an endocrinologist at the University of California-Davis, who co-wrote one of the papers.
Thus far, the research appears to show that sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are not that different, Parks says. She believes there's some evidence that the way they are metabolized in the liver is different but not in a way that makes the calories from high-fructose corn syrup more likely to be stored as fat.
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