The American food industry began using High Fructose Corn Syrup in the 1970’s and since then, Americans have seen increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Now we can add one more to the list of health problems with a link to high fructose corn syrup: Liver disease.
The news that high fructose corn syrup affects your liver may surprise a few people. After all, sugar is sugar, right?
How HFCS Affects your Liver
To understand how High Fructose Corn Syrup affects your liver, we need to understand the impact it has on obesity. Corn syrup producers have long denied the connection between High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and obesity, but independent research studies show that there is a relationship between the amount of HFCS in a person’s diet and the rate of obesity. In one study published online March, 2010 by Princeton University researchers in the journal of Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, researchers found that rats that drink water with high-fructose corn syrup gained much more weight than rats fed the same diet but had water sweetened with table sugar. Not only did the HFCS fed rats gain more weight, they showed signs of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a dangerous condition in humans that causes abnormal weight gain, increased triglyceride levels, and large fat deposits, especially belly fat.
When people show signs of metabolic syndrome, they are at an increased risk of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer, and diabetes. Doctors treating patients for these diet related conditions are now seeing an increase in another often silent condition, Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. The liver tissue of people with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease resembles the liver of a person with alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Doctors know that obese people are at greater risk of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, but one study shows a more direct link between HFCS and the liver.
The Journal of Hepatology published the results of a study in 2008 that showed that, when comparing the diets of those with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease to those with normal livers, people with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease were shown to have an intake of HFCS two to three times higher than those without the disease. The researchers concluded that a high intake of HFCS may be related to the development of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
Sugars Are Not Treated Equally
Scientists now challenge the assumption that all sugars are equal. Sucrose, another name for table sugar, is made up of glucose and fructose. It is found naturally in foods and when processed, becomes table sugar. This type of sugar is digested by enzymes in the intestines and by the liver into glucose molecules used by the body and brain. The excess sugar is metabolized into fat and stored for later use.
The sugars in High Fructose Corn Syrup are metabolized by the body in a different and much less complex process. Because HFCS is a highly processed food, the fructose molecules are unbound and ready for immediate absorption. The only place HFCS can be metabolized is in the liver, which it does in a process that is relatively simple when compared to the metabolism of other sugars. HFCS is quickly and easily metabolized into triglycerides – fat.
The fact that glucose molecules are used to fuel the brain is an important distinction. The molecules of HFCS are not transported into the brain so the brain never sends the signal to stop eating. This is just one more way that High Fructose Corn Syrup leads to weight gain.
HFCS is found in a variety of packaged foods. To cut back on your intake, learn to be a label reader. The general rule is, if the food has a label on it, chances are high that is has some form of HFCS.
Foods that Contain High Fructose Corn Syrup:
Soft drinks and fruit juices Canned fruits Flavored yogurt Dairy desserts Salad dressings, sauces, and ketchup Packaged and baked goods like cookies, breads, and snack foods Breakfast cereals
Reading a label is not as simple as looking for the words High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCS. Other names to look for:
Corn syrup Corn syrup solids Fructose
Coming Soon: Corn Sugar
Food manufacturers know that US consumers will avoid products with HFCS in the ingredients list. The consumption rate of HFCS in the US is at a 20 year low, and the industry response? In September 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned for a name change: High Fructose Corn Syrup will become “Corn Sugar”. The uneducated consumer will likely equate Corn Sugar to other forms of sugar on package labels like Cane Sugar or Sugar.
While the Corn Refiners Association argues with medical researchers about whether or not HFCS plays a part in diet related diseases including liver disease, those who wish to take better care of their health can start by making small changes in their diet and avoid foods high in calories and low in nutrition. Those high calorie/low nutrient foods are typically the same foods that contain HFCS in their list of ingredients. Coincidence? Probably not.
Bocarsly M, et al. High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 2010 97(1). P. 101-6. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2010.02.012
Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain. Retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/
Ouyanq X, et al. Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Journal of Hepatology 2008; 48(6):993-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20368739
Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Books; 2006. p. 86-7, 103-4