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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 25, 2008

The Many Faces of the Sugar Monster

By Worker Bee
70 Comments

hydra and herculesOur major qualm with high fructose corn syrup is its overwhelming ubiquity in processed food – which accounts for a significant portion of the average American’s daily diet. While we may not fall prey to the lure of excessive packaging and convenience offered by processed food, far too many people – about whose health we also care – rely on it. Plus, the fact that the stuff is so brazen about its sugar content (“high fructose”?) just rubs us the wrong way. Honesty is good, we suppose, but the fact remains that drinking soda or eating candy nowadays is like freebasing fructose.

And now a new study which suggests a link between high fructose intake and leptin resistance makes this prospect even worse. Leptin is a hormone generated by the body to achieve a balance between energy expenditure and food intake. That is, leptin basically plays a major role in regulating appetite. Researchers found that rats given a diet high in fructose no longer responded to leptin, while the fructose-less rats had a normal reaction to leptin. After six months of the diet, both groups of rats were injected with leptin. The sugar-abstainers ate less, commensurate with a normal reaction to leptin; the sugar-eaters did not lower their food intake at all. The sugar-eating rats got fat, both because of the leptin resistance and the increased sugar. Fructose, bad – right?

The science is sound. The results make perfect sense. But let’s be clear. There’s definitely a problem with high fructose corn syrup. It’s everywhere, it’s cheap, and it’s incredibly potent stuff. But fructose is in table sugar, too. It’s even in fruit. Where are the experts decrying the general use of all sugar in so much of our food? They may be out there (Hi, Mark!), but when you focus your efforts on demonizing only the most obvious offender, when you lose sight of the forest for the tallest tree oozing sugary sap – the larger point is missed. Parents who read this study might start buying Mexican Coke, which uses cane sugar, instead of normal Coke to avoid the corn syrup, but they’ll just be replacing one source of fructose with another. (Granted, maybe not quite as much.) Excessive fructose shocks our systems, rots our teeth, and contributes to a nationwide obesity epidemic, but most people are just focusing on the biggest head of the hydra. While it may gnash its teeth the most and flail around a lot, we’d be well-advised not to ignore those other, smaller heads snaking around to attack from behind.

Excessive metaphor usage aside, what we’d like to see is greater awareness of all sugar content. While the finding that excessive fructose causes leptin resistance is great, important research, we just worry that the focus on high fructose corn syrup might be counter-productive to getting the truth out about sugar in general. Thoughts?

Further Reading:

Foods with HFCS

The Dope on Energy Drinks

On the Question of Sweeteners

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70 Comments on "The Many Faces of the Sugar Monster"

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Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 10 months ago

When I first started cleaning up my diet, I thought it was ok to eat brown sugar, cane sugar and all that rubbish because it was “natural”. Thank goodness I know better now! I think you are right in that people will probably just cut back on the HFCS by replacing it with other refined sugars.

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later
7 years 10 months ago
I agree, but this is one I suspect few experts or public figures would dare tackle at this point. The fundamental problem is that we humans have a sweet tooth. We are programmed to eat sweet food until there is none left because when we were foraging in Paleo times, we would encounter it in small amounts (i.e. berries and fruit) and it would be rich in valuable vitamins. On this basis, the dangers of overconsumption did not really exist. In the modern world we have furnished ourselves with the abundance of sweetness we were never exposed to when evolving… Read more »
Hans Castorp
Hans Castorp
7 years 10 months ago

This post leaves me wondering — where do you stand on fruit? Is fruit to be avoided because it contains sugars? What’s a reasonable amount of fruit to eat? Are some fruits better than others? What do you do for dessert?

Erika
Erika
4 years 9 months ago

Fruit is a simple sugar that your body absorbs in less than a few hours so eat all the fruit that you want. Especially blueberries cuz they are high in antioxidants. Desserts are obviously more complex because you have refined sugar, butter, and most likely flour in desserts, like cakes and cookies. So eat fruit!!

Kevin
Kevin
7 years 10 months ago
When I began to pay attention to nutrition a few years ago, I was surprised to find that it was virtually impossible to find products that didn’t list HFCS as their second or third ingredient–even in allegedly “healthy” choices. As you say, almost all processed foods–even those in which you wouldn’t expect to find sugar–have HFCS. It’s a real issue, and reason enough to switch to fresh and organic foods. But you point out that people have come to rely on processed foods for convenience. To me, providing truly healthier choices with the same convenience would go a long way… Read more »
Eric
Eric
7 years 10 months ago

Table sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide that is 50/50 fructose and glucose monosaccharides. The HFC most commonly used is HFC-55, a mixture of 55/45 fructose/glucose monosaccharides. So it’s essentially the same thing, chemically.

Robert M.
Robert M.
7 years 10 months ago
Almost as big a LOLZ factor is ‘evaporated cane juice’ that’s in all the packaged organic foods. On Hans’ questions, the recommendation for daily carb intake is generally 80-120 grams, and maybe a little higher for an endurance athlete, so eating fruit is still allowed in moderation. So if you eat an apple (12 g) and an orange (15 g carbs) that’s not a lot. Berries are all around good, citrus (I like grapefruit), melon (especially cantaloupe), plums, apples and pears are all good diet choices. Just don’t eat a bag of apples a day. Juice should generally be avoided,… Read more »
Andy
Andy
7 years 10 months ago
“daily carb intake is generally 80-120 grams, and maybe a little higher for an endurance athlete” I read this and had to laugh. Try a _lot_ higher. I would say my daily carb intake is closer to 300-400 grams on an average day and could be up to 500-600 on bigger training days. Granted I happily burn those calories off by competing in bicycle racing, but I try and source ‘good’ sources of carbs such as fruit (I’ve been known to eat upwards of 4-6 bananas a day if I can get my hands on them), tons of veggies, and… Read more »
Mark Sisson
7 years 10 months ago
Andy, you are in sort of a no-man’s land trying to be partly primal and training on a carb/glucose-based training program. It’s a typical scenario for a competitive athlete. Seems that for now you are a slave to sugar no matter how you slice it. (Unless you can dramatically alter your training to rely on fats and ketones, you are probably better off racing on that glucose-based program). It’s really great (and will benefit you in other ways down the line) that you seek out healthier carb sources for meals and glycogen resynthesis. But when it comes to racing, it’s… Read more »
Anna
7 years 10 months ago
And don’t be fooled by agave syrup/nectar. It is *very* high in processed fructose (much higher than HFCS, actually, as high as 92%, according to http://www.wikipedia.org and other sources), whether it is labeled natural, raw, or low-glycemic. Agave syrup ss the “new HFCS” that’s in an increasing number of snack and processed “healthy” junk foods at Whole Foods and similar stores (I avoid most of the interior aisles of those stores, too). A little agave syrup on an infrequent basis might not be a big deal, but the folks I’ve seen using it, use it with abandon, like a “free… Read more »
Maria
Maria
7 years 10 months ago

Has anyone else had the pleasure of seeing those new “the truth about HFCS” TV advertisements? They make me cringe every time. The website referenced in the ad is just ludicrous to someone who knows anything about HFCS and sugar: http://www.hfcsfacts.com/ I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised–just Big Agra at it again!

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 10 months ago

Robert M,

I am SO trying that desert of yours. Sounds delicious.

Henry Miller
Henry Miller
7 years 10 months ago

I make it a point everytime I see a message about HFCS on some message boards to point out that the quantity of sugar is the problem. HFCS is just fine – but only in tiny amounts – half a can of soda for day is about all you should allow yourself. (Diet soda may not have HFCS, but it generally has other junk that is even worse)

new_me
new_me
7 years 10 months ago

I might have missed something along the way, but I’m confused about something.

How is HFCS stated on the ingredients list on labels? I have looked on numerous things and have never seen “high fructose corn syrup”. There is “sugar”, “glucose”, “fructose”, “…syrup”, but never “HFCS”.

Might this be something that is different up here in Canada?

I mean, I’m sure it is in there, but what is it called?

Rodney
Rodney
7 years 10 months ago

new_me,

I did a quick search and found a site that claims HFCS is called “fructose-glucose” on labels in Canada. I don’t know if this is universal, but it is at least one more thing to watch out for.

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later
7 years 10 months ago

Maria – for the antidote to those awful adverts, check out this alternative I created. Not as professional, but it makes the point well enough!

Alternative HFCS Advertisement

Andrew R
7 years 10 months ago

Hey Mark,

This might be taking it to the next level, but what are your thoughts on sugar alcohols as a reasonable substitute for sugar in cooking? Is thinking about using sugar alcohols also part of the counter-productive mind set you were talking about?

Thanks for the post!

All the Best,

Andrew R

Andrea
7 years 10 months ago

Still, everyone loves their sugar . . .

Faced with not enough people shoveling down their Light & Fit yogurt, Dannon decided to add 4g of sugar to each cup, relabeling it as “now improved flavor!!!”, and taking the calories from 60 to 80. Grrr.

Granted, yogurt might not be on everyone’s primal diet, but for a small snack its certain you could do worse. 😉

https://www.caloriecount.com/dannon-light-ft109829

Donna
Donna
7 years 10 months ago

I sometimes use honey as it has some anti fungal properties. I don’t have it every day, just every once in a while.

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[…] spent any time around MDA, you likely know the drill. Despite its beloved place (not to mention omnipresence) in our culinary culture, sugar offers the following gifts that keep on […]

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[…] spent any time around MDA, you likely know the drill. Despite its beloved place (not to mention omnipresence) in our culinary culture, sugar offers the following gifts that keep on […]

Vicki Kron
5 years 9 months ago

I agree totally about sugar being a problem for humans. New research about fructose, especially HFCS has come out saying that fructose causes liver fibrosis. Here’s another reason: man-made fructose metabolizes to triglycerides and adipose (fat) tissue, UNLIKE the fructose molecule linked to a glucose molecule found in sucrose (cane or beet), which is converted to blood glucose. So, if you have Diabetes like I do, sugar and especially fructose should be a minimal part of your diet.

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5 years 3 months ago

[…] The Many Faces of the Sugar Monster  Mark’s Daily Apple […]

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[…] spent any time around MDA, you likely know the drill. Despite its beloved place (not to mention omnipresence) in our culinary culture, sugar offers the following gifts that keep on […]

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sexshop
sexshop
5 years 12 days ago

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[…] lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of […]

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[…] were given a diet of 60% fructose for several weeks and then injected with leptin. In normal rats, leptin injections reduce energy intake and hunger. The leptin binds with leptin receptors in the hypothalamus and satiety is induced. In the […]

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Connie Barron
Connie Barron
4 years 6 months ago
I’m new to the Primal way, and I’ve just read the “sugar no-no’s” information. I want to stop using sugar, and I try, but I really think I am as addicted to sugar and someone who smokes! And the diet coke comments are spot on…nothing like a diet coke to spark a need for a candy bar. I’m not going to give up trying to cut out sugar cause I think I’ll feel better, so keep the info posted so I can keep reminding myself what harm I am doing to my body when a sugar craving hits. Thanks
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Fran
Fran
4 years 1 month ago

I just read that high fructose corn syrup in the UK and Ireland is labelled as glucose-fructose syrup.

Just so you know if you’re living there like I am and always hear about HFCS and never seen it on a food label!

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