Is high fructose corn syrup bad for you?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Chuck Bryant. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Josh, do you want a bite?

Josh Clark: I thought you loved me.

Chuck Bryant: I do. Take two bites.

Josh Clark: But it's got high fructose corn syrup in it.

Chuck Bryant: So?

Josh Clark: Well, you know what they say about that stuff.

Chuck Bryant: What?

Josh Clark: That it's - that - uh -

Chuck Bryant: That it's made from corn has the same calories as sugar, honey, and its fine in moderation.

Josh Clark: You only brought one?

Chuck Bryant: The end. And scene!

Josh Clark: Chuck, I feel dirty right now.

Chuck Bryant: Yes. We were clearly riffing on a popular commercial touting high fructose corn syrup.

Josh Clark: Yeah, which is kind of a big deal these days? Right, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: It is, indeed.

Josh Clark: So Chuck and I are going to talk about high fructose corn syrup and maybe some of the concerns, what it is, and whether or not it actually is bad for you.

Chuck Bryant: It is.

Josh Clark: So we will get to that right this moment. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Right, and welcome to Matt, our guest producer for the week.

Josh Clark: Yes, thank you for Matt for filling for Jerry who is on vacation, hopefully not enduring any life threatening circumstances, as is usually the case. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, and we love young and talented Matt. So welcome.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Young, talented, and well groomed Matt.

Chuck Bryant: Handsome. Yes.

Josh Clark: How's it going, Matt? All right, so on to high fructose corn syrup, Chuck. So this stuff didn't exist before 1957. Did you know that?

Chuck Bryant: I did.

Josh Clark: Okay. Let me explain a little further then. So in 1957, some researchers figured out that you can take glucose and corn syrup. I think corn syrup is like all glucose. And glucose is one of our primary energy sources. And did you know that insulin's job is to actually go in and basically open the cellular membrane to let the glucose in for burning?

Chuck Bryant: I did.

Josh Clark: Okay, well anyway, so if you want a lot of energy, you could basically pound a bottle of corn syrup. Just plain old corn syrup! But these researchers figured out in 1957 that if you added a couple of enzymes at different stages, you could convert glucose into fructose.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and fructose, Josh, as you know, is naturally occurring. It's a simple sugar. It's produced by a lot of different plants, and it's really, really sweet. And it's more soluble in water than glucose, which is also a simple sugar. So that's why it's good for things like soft drinks and in products like that.

Josh Clark: Plus, it's also cheaper.

Chuck Bryant: Well, yeah, sure.

Josh Clark: And we'll get to the reason why it's cheaper why in a minute. Did we mention my cold in this one?

Chuck Bryant: No. You have a cold.

Josh Clark: I have a terrible cold, everyone. I'm very sorry if I do that.

Chuck Bryant: The show must go on.

Josh Clark: My apologies in advance. Right.

Chuck Bryant: But we also should say really quick, too, just so people have their sugar understanding. There's also table sugar is what people probably think of as sugar. That is sucrose. And that's what you get when you combine fructose and glucose.

Josh Clark: Well, that's what high fructose corn syrup is as well is a combination - it's sucrose, too. It's just in a slightly different amount. There's about 10 percent more fructose in high fructose corn syrup than there is in common table sugar.

Chuck Bryant: Right, which doesn't sound like a lot, initially?

Josh Clark: It doesn't. Chuck, don't give it away yet. So 1957, they figure this out. There's the enzymatic action, and then bada boom, bada bing. You've got high fructose corn syrup. I get the impression that at the time, it was probably a very costly process.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, in the '50s, sure.

Josh Clark: But then in the '70s, people went back to it, and they basically perfected the process, made it cheaper. Now the concept of using high fructose corn syrup really dovetails nicely with what we here in the states call the farm bill, and that is this massive bill, which they deliberate every five or seven years.

Chuck Bryant: I'm not sure, actually.

Josh Clark: I can't remember, either. Anyway, the farm bill gives tons of money to corn producers.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, they do.

Josh Clark: To the point where you can over produce corn, corn we do not need, because everybody has got a cob in their mouth, and they'll still get money for it.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Plus, corn is useful in a lot of different ways.

Josh Clark: Like corn syrup. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure, and ethanol. And the list goes on.

Josh Clark: So we have an abundance - an over abundance, really, of corn. And Chuck, yeah! That's absolutely true. There was - you can use corn in ethanol. You can use it in high fructose corn syrup. The thing is we used to before the '70s, and we started throwing corn into corn syrup production. We used to send a lot of that surplus corn to Africa as food aide.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, is that so?

Josh Clark: So in the '70s, on the day that they perfected the high fructose corn syrup process, some poor Ethiopian shuttered and didn't know why. That was why.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Oh, yeah. Food aides definitely dried up. And people also make the argument that the same - we're going to have an even bigger problem with food. Not just exporting it, but here, too, if it becomes a viable fuel like ethanol.

Chuck Bryant: So they're basically going to be using up the corn for high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, and there's not enough to feed the world. Is that what you're saying?

Josh Clark: They'll use it for whatever they can make the most money off of.

Chuck Bryant: Obviously. Good point.

Josh Clark: Yeah, so okay, so that was my little aside, my little hippy liberal aside there, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Very nice.

Josh Clark: Okay, so in the '70s, we've got the high fructose corn syrup thing down. And the world becomes awash in the stuff. It's in absolutely everything.

Chuck Bryant: It is. And it's in products that you would never even think associate with sweetness. Like it becomes - corn syrup isn't very sweet, initially, but high fructose corn syrup is really sweet, and it's in things like crackers that you wouldn't even imagine.

Josh Clark: And they're starting to put it in meats, too, because it's a great preservative. So that's - again, there's only 10 percent more fructose in high fructose corn syrup than there is in regular table sugar, and everybody knows you should eat sugar in moderation. So I guess approaching it in that respect, you wouldn't really think that there's any kind of problems with it.

Chuck Bryant: Right, but it's really taken hold.

Josh Clark: It has, and also, I think the thing that really started to generate concern is over the past couple of decades, it's become clear that about the time high fructose corn syrup replaced table sugar in products like soft drinks, that kind of thing, the incidence of Type 2 diabetes and obesity in the US started to climb as well.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I got a stat for you.

Josh Clark: I want to hear it.

Chuck Bryant: If you're talking how much it's really taken over the other sugars, in 1970, more than 83 percent of sweetener consumed in the US was sucrose. By 1997, it dropped to 43 percent, almost in half, and the rest of the sweetener, 57 was high fructose corn syrup. And that was in '97. Now I bet it's even off the charts.

Josh Clark

It's even more prevalent. So yeah, so public opinion is starting to turn, which is why the corn council or somebody started that ad campaign? And what's the problem?

Chuck Bryant: Well, the problem is - I got another stat, which you kind of indicated. They did a study of 1,400 middle school students. And they found that nearly 1/3 of their caloric intake was added sugars. And we're not talking about like fruits and vegetable sugars.

Josh Clark: No, those are called natural sugars. They're not usually taken into account when you're talking about sugar intake. Added sugar is stuff like high fructose corn syrup. It's not naturally occurring.

Chuck Bryant: Right, so one third. So in 2005, they did another study, and Americans that year consumed 42 pounds of high fructose corn syrup per person.

Josh Clark: Okay, but again, you can say, "Well, they could be consuming table sugar in the same amounts. They could be getting the same caloric intake from table sugar in the same amount. What's the problem? Why is everyone picking on high fructose corn syrup?" Do you want me to tell you?

Chuck Bryant: That sounds like a great setup.

Josh Clark: Thanks. I just set myself up. You know those self olly oops?

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: You throw it up, and then you jump up and slam it, you dunk it.

Chuck Bryant: I have no idea. A boomerang.

Josh Clark: I don't know.

Chuck Bryant: It's like a Frisbee that you can play with by yourself.

Josh Clark: We'll go - no, it's not like that at all. It's a basketball.

Chuck Bryant: I sense Australians writing in now.

Josh Clark: Yeah, we just raised their ire. Again, I'm going to set myself up. Do you want to know why? I'll tell you why. Here's the problem with fructose. Our bodies don't use it like we use glucose. Glucose is such a common energy source for us that we can metabolize it just about any way. It can go to just about any cell or organ or anywhere in the body and say, "Hey, metabolize me, pal." And all of a sudden, we've got some energy. With fructose, there's only one organ that can possibly metabolize it, and that's the liver. And the liver has a certain limit of how much fructose it will process in their energy. And after that, it turns them into triglycerides, which we like to call fats. So that's one of the problems.

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, and since it's in everything from like bread to crackers and things - it's seemingly in meats for preservatives, it's - we're getting way, way too much of it.

Josh Clark: Sure. It's kind of like that episode of Seinfeld where everybody is eating this low fat yogurt. They just can't believe it's low fat. But it turns out it's not.

Chuck Bryant: They had it tested.

Josh Clark: Exactly. Yeah. So everyone was putting on all this weight. I think that's kind of what happened to America over the last couple of decades. We're unknowingly consuming this tremendous amount of sugar, and it gets converted into fats very easily, and all of a sudden, we're a fat diabetic nation.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I've got some stats.

Josh Clark: I love your stats, Chuck. Put your hand on my knee while you read them.

Chuck Bryant: I will. In 2007, and this kind of makes sense, Colorado is the only state in the whole country with less than 20 percent of its population qualifying as obese. So I guess -

Josh Clark: Yeah, they're very healthy out there.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, they hike and all that stuff, which is good. And another one as far as diabetes goes, between '94 and 2004, a new diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes increased by 23 percent, which is a big jump. And a lot of people think that the HFCS has something to do with that.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Way to throw an acronym in there, buddy.

Chuck Bryant: You like that?

Josh Clark: Yeah, oh, yeah. Sure. Can I say one other problem of fructose?

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: Okay. It is that there is 10 percent more in high fructose corn syrup than in regular table sugar. And when you start to eat a lot of it and it starts to appear in all sorts of different foods, that 10 percent really starts to add up.

Chuck Bryant: Absolutely.

Josh Clark: So that would also account for why we're a much meatier country than we were before.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Except Colorado, of course. Everything is fine in Colorado. But ultimately, again, back on the metabolic level, there's been studies that show that the tastes of artificial sweeteners or added sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, actually make us want to eat more. And it has nothing to do with what we're doing with it metabolically. It's the taste. We love the taste so much. It's like crack to us. So when we eat something that contains glucose, right, when we eat anything, generally, there's this chemical produced in the stomach. It's called ghrelin.

Chuck Bryant: Ew.

Josh Clark: I know. It's got a terrible name.

Chuck Bryant: It does.

Josh Clark: But it's actually really important. Ghrelin travels up to the brain and says, "Okay, stop. This person doesn't need to eat anymore. He or she is full. We got all the nutrients we need down here, so just cut it off for a little while, and then another chemical will let you know when we're hungry." We don't produce Ghrelin when we eat fructose, so the brain is never getting those signals it's used to getting saying, "Stop," which is why you can sit there and eat Little Debbie brownies by the box full all day long.

Chuck Bryant: Nutty Bars.

Josh Clark: Yeah, those are good, too.

Chuck Bryant: So good.

Josh Clark: Swiss Cake Rolls ain't too bad, either.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, they're all good.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Not to pick on Little Debbie. Little Debbie is a fine, fine company, and far from the only company using high fructose corn syrup.

Chuck Bryant: It's everywhere. It's everywhere.

Josh Clark: We love you, Little Debbie.

Chuck Bryant: So Josh, I think we're at the point now where we can talk about what you can do if you're worried about something like this, which you should be.

Josh Clark: Lay it on me.

Chuck Bryant: Well, clearly, everything in moderation, just like the cheesy little commercial says that we mock. But what you need to is you need to start checking the packaging of your foods. And better yet, you can try to start avoiding packaged foods as much as you can. That's really where it's at. I mean I had a friend that had high blood pressure, and his doctor said, "You can do a couple things. You can either get on this medication, or you can start eating fresh foods and avoid packaged foods."

Josh Clark: Did he go with the medication?

Chuck Bryant: No. Yeah, absolutely! No, no. He controlled it through diet, dude, and he quit buying anything in a box, anything in a package. He ate fresh fruits.

Josh Clark: Just stuff he found like in the yard.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah. He ate fresh fruits and vegetables. He ate meat. And his blood pressure dropped dramatically.

Josh Clark: Meats he found in the yard? Like cats?

Chuck Bryant: Uh huh, he raised cattle in his back yard. It was good. But yeah, it's always best to avoid packaged foods. And you look at any kind of packaged food ingredients. It's kind of frightening what's in there.

Josh Clark: Well, one of the problems is that high fructose corn syrup is substantially cheaper than regular sugar.

Chuck Bryant: It is.

Josh Clark: So that means the food prices are cheaper, which is, I guess, by extension or my hypothesis or theory I would say, because I'm sure it's been tested, why the poorer classes also tend to be the most malnourished. Because the stuff that they're eating is so processed, so packaged, and so chock full of not just stuff like high fructose corn syrup, but all sorts of other preservatives and additives that we shouldn't be eating, but are cheap and allow companies to produce cheap food. It's a horrible vicious cycle. I mean try eating organic in this economy, pal. You can't do it.

Chuck Bryant: Well, true.

Josh Clark: You have to be like filthy rich to eat organic these days.

Chuck Bryant: That's not true.

Josh Clark: It is.

Chuck Bryant: Do you know what's not cheap?

Josh Clark: What?

Chuck Bryant: Diabetes.

Josh Clark: That's true. It's an excellent point.

Chuck Bryant: And hospital stays and heart attacks. So do yourself a favor. You'll save some dough in the long run if you eat better and take care of yourself.

Josh Clark: Plus, you'll keep your foot.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, true.

Josh Clark: So there's high fructose corn syrup. I guess we'll just sit back and expect an angry cease and desist letter from the corn council or somebody. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Right. We love corn. Corn is great.

Josh Clark: I love corn on the cob like you would not believe.

Chuck Bryant: Me, too. It's one of my favorites.

Josh Clark: Anyway, that's high fructose corn syrup, and followed by our disclaimer that Chuck and I actually do like corn and American farmers and America in general. So there you go.

Chuck Bryant: God bless America.

Josh Clark: Are we plugging anything these days?

Chuck Bryant: We can give a quick mention to the blog. You know, we have the blog on the website you can access, and I think most folks are catching on now. We're getting some good numbers.

Josh Clark: Well, hell, let's plug the thing that we're making money off of.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, sure. The Super Stuff Guide to the Economy with Josh and Chuck! You can buy that for $4.00 on iTunes, and learn about economics and get a little better understanding of what's going on in the world.

Josh Clark: Yep.

Chuck Bryant: And is it time for listener mail?

Josh Clark: Yeah, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: So Josh, I was impressed with this one.

Josh Clark: I've heard.

Chuck Bryant: This is not a haiku, but it is a poem, and a 17 year old named Daniel in Colorado wrote us a sonnet.

Josh Clark: There's like more than 80 percent chance that he's not obese.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, really? Oh because he's in Colorado. All right, so here we go from Daniel. I would that there were just one reason why the podcast did delight me fully so that I might be in hasty time supply a nicely packaged blurb, so you might know. Alas, no single reason will suffice. The podcast is a pleasure labyrinthine. To try to craft a reason too precise would make a burly rope of stingy twine. But in those fleeting moments in the night, one wonders does one really need to know whether one can really die of fright or if how anger works is apropos. But though it may be triviality, the podcast comes to us completely free. How about that?

Josh Clark: That was great.

Chuck Bryant: I couldn't write one of these.

Josh Clark: No, definitely not. And try fitting labyrinthine in.

Chuck Bryant: I know. So Daniel in Colorado, 17 years old, you are awesome.

Josh Clark: Is he an adult?

Chuck Bryant: He's 17.

Josh Clark: No. Okay. Great, good to know that he may or may not be an adult! Either way, thank you very much, Daniel. We appreciate the effort, and we've always also said you can only gripe so much because it is free. Right?

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Thank you for supporting that point. If you want to send us a gorgeous poem or just type the word labyrinthine in an e-mail and send it to us, you can shoot that over to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.

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