The Many Faces of the Sugar Monster

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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