High Fructose Corn Syrup on Trial

Instant gratification takes the cake

If you’ve ever been employed in a fairly large enough office, you’ve also probably eaten more than your fair share of office cake. It’s that thing, when you work at a place with enough employees to fuel the sugary cravings of people en masse, and there are enough birthdays, retirements, thank-yous, newborns, and holidays to regularly and inappropriately warrant the overconsumption of celebratory cake- A discount office cake to be specific.

Most everyone understands the joy of instant gratification. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the cake, to make us feel better at work, in the moment and at the moment. The conference room confection is really just a discount office cake—but it’s not the cake that’s discounted.

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Hyperbolic discounting in human behavior refers to the intellectual process where a small reward now has more worth to an individual than a larger one at a later time. Although the larger reward is a better deal on paper, our desire for instant gratification discounts logic, and we are unable to appropriately value the better reward and make the best decision regarding our diet.

Time and perceived cost are the two large factors in this thought process. As the time between each reward decreases, more people are willing to wait for a bigger payoff. Similarly, more people are willing to forsake their fitness goal that takes several months to achieve for the instant gratification from eating a sweet indulgence today.

“Healthy” sugar marketing is also compounding the problem. As packaged foods promote healthier, “natural” sugars, the perceived costs of such indulgences decrease further, and poor dietary decisions become more pervasive. But, what is a “natural” sugar and are these sugars actually better for our health?

Metabolism of different sugar types

The simplest of sugar molecules are monosaccharaides. Common monosaccharaides, such as glucose and fructose, have the same chemical formula, meaning they are made of the same atoms, in the same amounts, and have the same weight—and very importantly the same calories

Put two monosaccharaides together and you get a disaccharide. Sucrose is one such disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose molecules. Effectively, by weight and molecule content, sucrose is a one-to-one glucose and fructose mixture.

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Only monosaccharaides can pass through the small intestine. After sucrose is consumed, it must be broken down into its glucose and fructose subunits by the intestinal enzyme, sucrase. Once absorbed, the monosaccharaides travel to the liver. From here, glucose is free to move into the blood stream, raising blood sugar levels and activating pancreatic cells to produce insulin. Insulin then controls blood sugar levels fairly rapidly to maintain homeostasis after a glucose-rich meal. Unlike glucose, fructose requires extra processing by liver enzymes and the result from this processing can continue along different metabolic pathways. Moreover, fructose is not effective at stimulating insulin. As an outcome, the metabolic differences between fructose and glucose have raised questions about the adverse effects on health and explain fructose’s negative standing.

The on-going war on fructose

In case you’ve missed the media buzz, fructose has a reputation—and it’s not a good one. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in particular has come under attack, but excesses of either sucrose, also known as table sugar (that stuff you buy in 4 pound bags at the grocery store), or HFCS have been implicated in the increase of obesity and metabolic syndrome world-wide. HFCS is really just a sweeter co-conspirator, literally.

Sugars have different levels of sweetness on the relative sweetness rating scale. Glucose, sucrose, and fructose score 74, 100, and 173 respectively, meaning fructose is remarkably sweet—73% sweeter than sucrose, and more than twice as sweet as glucose. By using HFCS with altered ratios of fructose to glucose, food companies can adjust the proportion of sweetness to sugar weight and more importantly, reduce costs.

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

HFCS mainly comes in 3 different compositions: HFCS 42, 55, and 90.The numbers refer to the percent of fructose in the syrup.The rest is mostly glucose, with traces of other sugars. HFCS 42 has a sweetness that matches sucrose; making it the most commonly used HFCS in baked goods. The increase of fructose to 55% increases sweetness—and solubility—so HFCS 55 is commonly used to sweeten soda-style beverages.

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

As compared to 12-ounce cans of all-natural, sucrose-sweetened sodas with 170 Calories, HFCS-55 sweetened beverages have 140 Calories. Because HFCS 55 has a higher relative sweetness, the fructose load compared to sucrose can be about 9% less for the same type of beverage. Amusingly, in an effort to eat less sugar, replacing sucrose with HFCS may be a way to consume fewer calories.

To put it in a different perspective, fructose is a fruit sugar, and fruits are a large part of a healthy diet. According to the United States Government Nutrition Database, fructose composes 66% of the calories in apple juice (even organic brands), more than half the sugar content in wild blueberries, and over 60% of the sugars in watermelon. So fructose consumption is not avoidable as part of a balanced diet.

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Image credit: Snejana Iordanova http://snejayo.wix.com/si-graphic-design

Yet, there may be an explanation for the perceived evils of this sugar. HFCS is very inexpensive and that makes a great food-filler, even for savory foods. Along with the public’s increase thirst for sweetened beverages, this trend has increased the average person’s overall consumption of sugar. For example, processed foods such as pasta sauces, ketchup, hot dogs, and fruit flavored nutrition bars all contain added sugars. In the year 2012, the USDA Economic Research Service recorded the per capita availability of added sugars to be 156 pounds. That’s nearly a 40% increase from the 1950s. Even accounting for food waste and other factors, the lowest estimated average consumption of sugar is 22 to 32 teaspoons (350 to 500 calories) per American, per day. HFCS accounts for a lot of this added consumption. But it’s not all fructose’s fault—it’s a lot of gluttony. Consumers need to pay attention to stay within the American Heart Associations guidelines of less than 10 teaspoons of added sugar daily.

Battle hyperbolic discounting, not fructose

At the end of the day, the war on HFCS may simply be a distraction from the real issue: giving into instant gratification. Next time you reach for something sweet, acknowledge hyperbolic discounting and maybe you can take one step closer to a healthier diet.

In spite of all this, indulgence is a healthy part of the human experience, and it’s good to seek pleasure in moderation. Including sweet extravagances as part of a balanced diet are okay; looking at the big picture is most important. When it’s time to indulge, I go for pure hedonism. Nothing does it better than “Grandpa’s Chocolate Guinness Cake.” It’s creamy and sweet, with a depth of flavor and array of texture, and is named after someone else’s grandpa. I don’t know if that grandpa developed type II diabetes, but he did leave a legacy of the ultimate discount cake. 


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Michael Akroush holds an MS degree in Biological Sciences from DePaul University and has years of experience in fitness and weight management, psychopharmacogenomics, and reproductive biology research. In addition to advancing medicine through molecular biology, he hopes to use his science knowledge to improve everyday life. 

In his spare time he volunteers a lot, works on art projects, raises chickens in a backyard, rides a bike in the street, runs marathons really slowly, is learning to play the violin, and complains about his bike getting stolen, again.  Most importantly, he loves people who “just get it.”