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Interviewees: Elizabeth Parks, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
From cereal to soda, from beans to bread, fructose from high fructose corn syrup has worked its way into much of the American diet.
“It’s put in absolutely everything. It’s in ketchup, it’s in crackers, it’s in bread, it’s in anything you can think of,” says nutritionist and author Marion Nestle. “We like things sweet.”
Now scientists are finding that fructose could be making us fatter, faster.
“There’s lots of studies in animals that show that fructose, compared to other sugars, can be made into body fat very quickly,” says Elizabeth Parks, clinical nutrition researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
But do those animal studies apply to people? Parks, who specializes in how diet affects the creation of fat in the body, designed a study to find out.
As she wrote in “The Journal of Nutrition,” Parks and her team put healthy volunteers on the same regulated diet, and gave them different sugary drinks on three separate days. The drinks contained different amounts of fructose and the simpler sugar, glucose.
One drink solution contained a mixture of 50 percent fructose, and 50 percent glucose. Another solution contained 75 percent fructose, and only 25 percent glucose. The last drink solution contained all glucose, and no fructose. On the experiment day, the participants drank the solution in the morning, and hours later they were tested to see how much fat had built up in their bodies.
But how did they know whether the fat was coming from the fructose or something else in their diet?
As Parks explains, “When we see a fat in the body, we can tell if that fatty acid was made from a carbohydrate… versus a fat in the body that came in as a pre-formed fat, such as oils or butter.” Sugars, like fructose, are also classified as carbohydrates.
Once they knew where the fat was coming from, they were ready to see whether the amount of fructose really did have an effect on the build-up of fat. What they found was startling.
“When fructose was present in the sweet drink,” says Parks, “whether it was at 50 percent of its concentration, or 75 percent, we found that the fat synthesis rate was more than twice, almost three times the rate than when we just fed glucose alone.”
What does this mean for the average consumer?
Nestle, who is also professor of Nutrition Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, says the findings are important considering how widespread high fructose corn syrup has become in the last 20 years.
“It’s much, much cheaper than sucrose, which is the white sugar that goes on the table,” she says. “So starting in the 1980s, because the cost of sucrose is kept artificially high because of federal policy, everybody started using high fructose corn syrup. As a cheap substitute for sucrose, it costs about a third as much as sucrose did. And also it turned out to have very nice properties for certain kinds of foods. It has a nice water holding quality that works well in a lot of foods. So it’s put in absolutely everything.”
With so much high fructose corn syrup out there, it could be hard to know how to stay healthy. Nestle advises going easy on products with sugar added to them, and getting your fix of sweet treats from mother nature.
“My advice is always eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food,” she says. “And that would include foods that have high fructose corn syrup or sugar for that matter.”
Also on ScienCentral:
Sweet Tooth Gene, 6/3/08
Low Carb Science, 12/9/04
Junk Food Study, 12/31/04
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