Open your fridge or cupboard, and take a look at the labels on your food. Chances are you'll see high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a common form of added sugar. The U.S. food supply provides a whopping 53 pounds of HFCS per person each year. That adds up to a lot of empty calories. Now a new study from Princeton University suggests that it may also lead to higher triglycerides.
Is HFCS Bad News?
HFCS is made by processing corn syrup to create a blend of two simple sugars: fructose and glucose. The result is a cheap sweetener used in a wide array of sugary drinks and processed foods, such as regular sodas, energy drinks, sweetened fruit drinks, candies, desserts, canned fruits, jams, yogurt, condiments, soups, spaghetti sauce, crackers, cereals, and breads.
In the Princeton study, rats given HFCS gained more weight than those given sucrose (a.k.a. table sugar). This was true even when their calorie intake was the same. Over a period of months, rats fed HFCS also developed higher triglycerides and abnormal increases in abdominal fat. When such changes occur together in humans, they increase the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The Effect on Triglycerides
Scientists are just starting to sort out how HFCS and triglycerides might be linked.
Fructose vs. Glucose
There has been little research done comparing the effects of HFCS with those of pure fructose or pure glucose. Pure fructose—found naturally in fruit—is broken down and used by the body differently from glucose.
Studies show that eating a lot of fructose may raise triglyceride levels after meals. If this eating pattern continues for weeks, it may lead to higher triglyceride levels at other times, too. The triglyceride-raising effect may be stronger in men and in women after menopause than in younger women. Compared to glucose, fructose also may decrease insulin sensitivity and increase belly fat—risk factors for heart disease and diabetes that often go hand-in-hand with elevated triglycerides.
HFCS vs. Sucrose
In real life, most sugar in the U.S. diet isn't pure fructose or glucose. Instead, it's HFCS or sucrose. The latter are both compounds made of fructose and glucose, but there are key differences between them. First, sucrose contains equal parts fructose and glucose. But HFCS contains unequal amounts and often is a bit heavier on the fructose side. Second, the fructose molecules in HFCS, unlike those in sucrose, are "free" and "unbound." This means they're easier for the body to use.
Theoretically, these differences could account for the different effects seen in rats fed HFCS or sucrose. Researchers think similar effects may occur in people as well. But more research in humans is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
Short and Sweet Advice
What does this mean for you? To help manage not only your triglycerides but also your weight, it's best to limit all added sugars. That's any form of sugar put into a food or drink during processing, cooking, or serving. The American Heart Association says such sugars should add up to no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) per day for men or 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons) per day for women.
Reaching this goal isn't easy; the average American currently gets more than two to three times that many calories per day from sugar. But every little bit helps. To get started, the next time you're at the store, instead of buying sugary sodas, energy drinks, or fruit punches, choose sugar-free or low-calorie drinks instead.
Keep reading those food labels. If you see HFCS listed there, you might want to give your food or drink choice a second thought.