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Fructose, Sugar And Bad Science

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 13, 2010

As our discussion of the “Fresh for Ellen” initiative has evolved, it has come to encompass a broader discussion on specific issues — such as the relative merits of high fructose corn syrup and the threat to good public policy posed by junk science. Our pieces have been many, including these:

Plea For Ellen DeGeneres To Consider Produce In Her Sugar-Free Diet

How Will Success Be Measured For Fresh for Ellen Social Media Campaign?

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Shows Passion And Potential To Help The Industry

‘Fresh For Ellen’ Raises A Question: How Should We Define Success?

Will Our World Be Dominated By Junk Science And Sloppy Thinking?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Why Bother With Ellen DeGeneres?

The thrust of our analysis has been two-fold:

1) That the war against “processed sugars” — exemplified by Ellen DeGeneres’ endorsement of Agave Nectar and condemnation of table sugar is not supported by any science. That an understanding of chemistry leads us to say that for all practical purposes high-fructose corn syrup is, in fact, just sugar.

2) That good public policy — and good nutritional advice — cannot be based on ignorance and prejudice but must, instead, rest on the reality of the science.

Now we owe a hat tip to Dr. Marita Cantwell of UC Davis for sending the following note in the service of science:

Regarding the comments and interviews about fructose and our diets, I am attaching a recent review that could be useful if any of your readers are interested in more on this topic.

This provides more in-depth discussion of the issue and nuances not possible in a short summary as well as providing an updated review of the scientific literature. In general, however, it is consistent with the statements in your newsletter and the video.

— Marita Cantwell, Ph.D.
Postharvest Specialist
Dept. Plant Sciences
University of California
Davis, California

The review Dr. Cantwell sent over and for which we thank her is titled, Metabolic Effects of Fructose and the Worldwide Increase in Obesity, authored by Luc Tappy and Kim-Anne Le of the Department of Physiology, Faculty of Biology and Medicine, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.

It is an interesting piece, reminding us that sugar was once a great luxury:

Humans have not always been the high sugar-consumers that we are today. Man’s ancestors, the Cro-Magnon men during the Paleolithic, obtained their food from hunting and gathering, and their diet was mainly composed of meat. Their nutritional intake was high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in carbohydrates. At this time, fruit and berries represented the major source of carbohydrates, while starch consumption was low. It can be speculated that man’s natural taste attraction for sweetness dates from these ages, when sugar was scarce.

Honey was the main sweetener, used in limited amounts, until the Crusades, during which time western Europeans got acquainted with sugar used in the Middle East. Consumption of sugars remained however quite low until the 18th century, when both the development of intercontinental trade with distant countries where sugar cane abounded and technological improvement to extract and refine sugars became available. Sugar was no longer a luxury product and quickly became extremely popular.

It was initially mostly extracted and refined from cane and imported to Europe and North America, and later was also prepared from beets. Sugar was first consumed as a sweetener in tea and coffee, the new fashionable drinks, but its use was rapidly extended to be preparation of new tasty and palatable food items such as bakeries and sweets. In England, sugar consumption increased by 1,500% between the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the turn of the 20th century, sugars had become one major constituent of our diet.

There is real concern over excessive fructose in the diet, a point New York University’s Marion Nestle expressed in the video we ran at the end of this piece. The video mentioned research being done at UC Davis to assess whether the body metabolizes high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar.

For the moment, the review Dr. Cantwell sent over sums up the known science:

There has also been much concern that consumption of free fructose, as provided in high fructose corn syrup, may cause more adverse effects than consumption of fructose consumed with sucrose. There is, however, no direct evidence for more serious metabolic consequences of high fructose corn syrup versus sucrose consumption.

The whole movement against refined sugars seems to us to be a kind of misplaced nostalgia for a long gone age. Yes when fructose was only available through whole products such as fruit, we didn’t have many of the obesity-related illnesses that we have today — although life was also solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short… and so people died much younger. The problem is that fructose is present in table sugar as well as in high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, Agave Nectar, the “natural choice" Ellen DeGeneres endorses, often is composed of a higher percentage of more fructose than table sugar high-fructose corn syrup:

Let’s take a look at what agave nectar really is, before we think it’s healthy just because it came from a plant (as do sugar and HFCS):

• agave nectar is primarily composed of inulin, a polysaccharide that acts like fiber in the system

• inulin is not really sweet so it must be processed (usually by heat) to convert it into fructose, primarily, which is sweet

• it must be boiled down, regardless of how the inulin is converted to fructose, in order to reduce a thin nectar into a thicker syrup (so it is most certainly not a “raw”/”live” food product)

• agave nectar is 56-92% fructose, with the rest mostly glucose

• HFCS, vilified as much as agave nectar is worshipped, is 55% fructose, the rest glucose. Yes, almost the same exact composition as some agave syrup.

But HFCS is processed! So is agave nectar. But agave nectar has a lower glycemic index than sugar! So does HFCS. I mean, they’re pretty much the exact same thing, except agave is made from a Mayan polysaccharide feedstock, and HFCS is made from an American one.

So, the biggest difference, except for the fact that agave nectar is imported from a much longer distance so as to incur a much larger carbon footprint, is that agave can have a higher percentage of fructose than glucose.

In any case, recognizing that a plethora of fructose in the diet may be a problem has literally nothing to do with fighting to change the sweetener in chocolate milk from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar.

That is a battle that is rooted in ignorance and an anti-scientific attitude. Following that path leads to both bad nutrition and bad policy.

Many thanks to Dr. Cantwell and UC Davis for sending this along and helping us better understand this issue.

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