I received a great question over the Holiday weekend. One that is controversial in nature but also very real in the world in which we live. It came from a corn farmer here in the midwest who makes a living off of this grain that has been in the hot seat for some time. That grain is corn with the general concerns of “is corn is good for you?” His question:
“If corn is a natural product, grown from the earth and coming from a plant, then why is high fructose corn syrup so bad for us?”
First of all, I want to say that I take great pride living in the state of Iowa. I by no means am putting down any farmer or their industry. The reality is that we, as consumers, drive what farmers grow and produce. So instead of blaming the farmer let’s blame the consumer, which means we are in control and the decisions we make at the grocery store drive the market. Let’s face it, we couldn’t survive without agriculture.
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But getting back to corn, lets start with the basics.
The Natural Enemy
If we go back to the basics and see where corn comes from, then in fact he is correct. Corn is grown from the earth, feeding off the soil and providing a vegetable, a crop that we can consume to gain nutrients.
Yes, corn very much is a vegetable and one that we have consumed for thousands of years. While not as nutrient dense as other vegetables, it still contains numerous nutrients especially phytonutrients, carotenoids and high amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Is it too starchy?
Much of the health community would tell you that corn is too high in carbohydrates. But to put it in perspective, an ear of corn is equivalent to a banana in calories and most of us don’t think twice about eating bananas. Plus, a banana can have 2-3 times as much sugar as an ear of corn. YIKES!
Not all created equal
But not all corn is created equal. Corn, as in whole kernel corn or sweet corn is rarely genetically modified regardless if it is organic or not. In fact, when testing nearly 80% of all whole kernel corn on the market, only 2.4% came back testing positive for GMO’s. Whole kernel sweet corn is also the variety where we see the nutrients in tact.
White, Yellow and Blue corn which compromises our corn products such as corn chips and tortilla shells are just the starch (or sugar molecules) of the corn. Most of the nutrients have been lost and in the end these products should be limited as you would any starch or sugar.
What about High Fructose Corn Syrup?
Commercial Corn on the other hand is over 90% genetically modified. This is also the corn that is used to produce high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup comes from processing corn into sugar.
The natural claims:
The argument among the corn industry is that high fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener. But most health experts would agree that because of the chemical process it takes to take corn and turn it into a sweetener is highly processed we then label high fructose corn syrup or corn syrup as an industrial food product.
But sugar is sugar, right?
Let’s take a look at the science.
Sugar in any form causes obesity and disease when consumed in pharmacologic doses or doses most of America consumes today.
We can look first at our consumption of sugar and more specifically HFCS and understand that our intake has increased 10 fold or more over the last hundred years. From once consuming an average of 22 tsp per year of added sugar to now consuming an average of 130 pounds per person per year our intake of sugar has significantly increased.
Because HFCS is an industrial food product, not something found in nature as the only way to extract high fructose corn syrup is through a chemical and enzymatic process we then only find it in highly processed foods. So could we simply state that regardless of the science, high fructose corn syrup is dangerous in the fact that it is almost always paired with a very highly processed, nutrient deprived food item.
This makes the consumption of sugar we consume today, which is technically considered pharmacologic doses of sugar are very harmful to the body, regardless of the science.
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What is the science?
High fructose corn syrup and cane sugar are not biochemically identical or processed the same way meaning that no, not all sugar is created equal.
Sucrose, or table sugar is a combination of fructose and glucose in a 50:50 ratio in a bound form. High fructose corn syrup on the other hand is combined with glucose in a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form <-THIS IS KEY.
How we get HFCS:
The process of producing HFCS comes from a chemical enzymatic process of taking corn and breaking the sugar bonds to created unbound of free fructose and glucose.
Typical sugar such as table sugar is found in the bound form. Meaning that your body must release enzymes in your digestive tract to break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose to be absorbed into the body.
HFCS again is unbound meaning there is no chemical bond between the sugars, so no digestion is required and they are more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream.
What fructose does in the body:
Unbound <-TAKE NOTE fructose found in HFCS is absorbed into the blood stream where it goes right the liver and triggers lipogenesis which is the production of fatty acids from sugar.
The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin causing a spike in the body’s major fat storage hormone. Both of these features of HFCS lead to an increased metabolic disturbance that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and dementia to name a few.
Even more is that free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed by the GI tract and soaks up two phosphorus molecule ATP (our body’s energy source) depleting the energy fuel source in our gut which is required to maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining.
High fructose corn syrups impact on our gut:
The depletion of energy in GI tract allows the tight junctions of our cells to pull apart leaving holes in the digestive tract, which is typically classified as ‘leaky gut’. This allows nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger inflammation which is the root of many disease processes.
Fructose’s impact on hormones:
Unlike other types of carbohydrates made up of glucose, fructose does not stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin. Fructose also fails to increase the production of leptin, a hormone produced by the body’s fat cells that is the master in regulating our hunger and satiety cues.
Both insulin and leptin act as signals to the brain to turn down the appetite and control body weight. And when you add in the final metabolic twist, researchers show that fructose does not appear to suppress the production of gherlin, which is the hormone that increases hunger and appetite. This leave us in a fat-producing hunger state, constantly.
What about Fruit and Honey?
Fructose is also the main sweetener in fruit, starchy vegetables and honey. So the question arises, is this also bad for us? The answer is no. The only harmful effects of fructose have been found in the unbound form. Fruit and honey have fructose in the bound form. Not to mention the many nutrients and fibers that allow for a different digestive and absorption mechanisms than HFCS.
Is Corn Good For You?
Not all sugar is created equal. If we look at the science, HFCS is different from all other sugars because the fructose is found unbound to another sugar. This allows it to escape digestion, enter the body and get stored as fat about as quickly as you consume the food. Fructose not only gets stored as fat but it also wrecks havoc on our hunger and satiety cues, increasing your appetite.
HFCS while coming from a natural product, corn, is actually not considered natural because of the process it takes to take corn and turn it into a syrup. This is a highly chemical process, tainting the end product. But regardless of the science the reality is that we consume any and all sugars more than we should. We find sugar, more specifically HFCS in nearly every processed, dead food leading us to consume more than ever.
Whole kernel corn on the other hand is still considered natural, a vegetable and something that can be a part of a healthy diet. Rarely is whole kernel sweet corn that you find in the grocery store tainted. Where our corn products are ground from the starch of corn, these lack the nutrients that whole kernel corn contain and thus should be limited.
Do We Need Sugar?
The reality is yes, we need sugar, just not in pharmacological dosage. When it comes to sugar, we must choose the right sugars. These are our natural ones that come straight from the earth, eating without begin tainted with chemicals or enzymes to create a sugar. The natural sweeteners would include; fruits, dried fruits, honey and maple syrup. Again, it’s all going to boil down to the quality in which you choose. Always choose quality food items over quantity.
My Tips for Eating Sugar:
Make sure that when you do eat sugar, you eat it with a fat and protein. The quality fats slows down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream, providing satiation and satisfaction. The protein helps pull sugar into the cells so your body can use it for energy. The same holds true for any sugar or starch.
Also aim to swap any sugar you can with fruit. If you can get away with sweetening your smoothie with fruit alone, perfect. The less sugar we put in our body the better.
In the end, I eat corn as you will see by many of the recipes on my blog. I believe that whole kernel sweet corn can be a healthy addition to any diet. I do agree that is not as nutrient dense as most vegetables that is why I always recommend a variety of nutrients. As always make sure you watch out for QUALITY of the foods you eat.
The reality, I consume corn products every once in a while as well. It’s not about deprivation but a realistic life that can be maintained. This means for me that corn chips with my salsa can be an okay thing, just not all of the time. I do try to buy organic corn when it comes to corn products. In regards to HFCS, I avoid it at all costs. There are more quality sweeteners to use if needed and most of the time HFCS is associated with the more highly processed foods.
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(i) Dufault, R., LeBlanc, B., Schnoll, R. et al. 2009. Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: Measured concentrations in food product sugar. Environ Health. 26(8):2.
(ii) Bray, G.A., Nielsen, S.J., and B.M. Popkin. 2004. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 79(4):537-43. Review.
Five reasons high fructose corn syrup will kill you. Dr. Mark Hyman. Retrieved from: http://drhyman.com/blog/2011/05/13/5-reasons-high-fructose-corn-syrup-will-kill-you/
Sugar coated/ We’re drowning in high fructose corn syrup. Do the risks go beyond our waistline? Kim Severson. Retrieved from:http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Sugar-coated-We-re-drowning-in-high-fructose-2794906.php.