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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26 thoughts on “The Many Faces of the Sugar Monster”

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  1. 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.

  2. 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 and created firstly a ubiquitous medical problem and secondly an emotional attachment to sweet food that’s so entrenched in our culture that anyone suggesting we should just stop eating sweet foods except moderate amounts of fruit would be strung up by the masses…

  3. 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?

    1. 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!!

  4. 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 to better health in the general public.

  5. 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.

  6. 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, since there’s no fiber content to tamp down the insulin response. The only fruit to avoid is probably bananas, which are mostly starch. Some other tropical fruit are more or less pure sugar and don’t provide a lot of nutritional benefit.

    For desert, there are plenty of low-sugar, high-fat deserts out there. Think cocoa powder and butter, coconut, nuts and nut butters, butter, eggs, etc. If you can digest lactose, then whipping cream can be used in a lot of recipes and has about 15x more fat than sugar.

    I like to core apples, fill the interior with a mix of cocoa powder and melted butter, and roast them for 30 minutes at 275 ^F.

  7. “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 yes even some grains- but I try and stay away from too much pasta and bread. I tried to go more ‘primal’ by cutting my carbs and upping my fats, but found I just don’t recover from my workouts well enough to train effectively.

    Mark- In a previous post on trying as primal as possible (compromises) while still training/competing in endurance athletics and I believe you recommended fueling on energy gels during the race or event, and going ‘low-carb’ otherwise. Isn’t this nothing but putting sugar in your body? Sports drinks and gels are simple sugars by design. Would you rather see athletes eschew this forms of ‘sugar monsters’ and focus on real food? This would probably necessitate grains in the diet in some form or another (it can be hard and impractical to eat that much fruit…)

    What is the better or 2 evils: sugar or bread/grains?

  8. 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 glucose your body needs. Under racing circumstances, the glucose goes directly to muscle and doesn’t even need (or stimulate) insulin. For that reason there’s no benefit to giving yourself a sweet potato or a banana in a race. Gels and sugar drinks are the fastest way to deliver glucose.

    BTW, for anyone reading this who is NOT a competitive athlete, that’s one reason I limit all the hard training to a maximum of an hour a day and focus aerobically on longer, much slower fat-burning work (50-70% MAX HR). That way you never need more than the 150 grams a day of dietary carbs and you become a very efficient burner of dietary and stored fat.

    The final answer, Andy, is that of the 2: grains or sugar, in your case sugar is the lesser of the two evils. (I guess hate grains so much, sugar will always be the lesser).

    Good luck in your racing.

  9. 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 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 lunch” lunch card because they are overjoyed to find a “natural” and “healthy” sweetener. Not so fast! There is no “free lunch” when it comes to concentrated sugars (exercise caution with anything that ends in -ose). The low-glycemic index of agave syrup might not immediately derail the blood glucose due to the lower glucose content, but all that excess fructose will go to the liver for processing and conversion to fatty acid triglycerides, raising the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, not to mention all the other nasties that go along with high triglyceride levels.

  10. 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: I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised–just Big Agra at it again!

  11. Robert M,

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

  12. 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)

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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. 😉

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

  18. 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.

  19. Thank you for this article. I would also like to mention that it can become hard when you are in school and just starting out to create a long credit rating. There are many scholars who are simply just trying to live and have a lengthy or beneficial credit history can occasionally be a difficult thing to have.

  20. 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.


  21. 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!

  22. Among all the twists and turns attempting to get an overview on a most complicated matter, one should take the time to watch a recent BBC two one-hour documentary: “The Men Who Made Us Fat.” They specifically refer to HFCS and clearly document that the ever expanding girth of a nation (any nation for that matter) is that the fat accumulated is INTRA-ABDOMINAL. The latter encasses the organs in the belly and is essentially non-removable by any means, including surgery. Its accumulation is insidious. A few grams per day throughout one’s life. It was demonstrated that a trim journalist doing the program when examined by modern technology already demonstrated large deposits INSIDE his belly while no apparent fat was evident around is outer abdomen, hips, thighs or buttocks…in other words we are all doomed and within a few decades many countries near oceans will just sink and float away!