9 million people in Canada have diabetes and roughly 90% of those have type 2 diabetes—the preventable form. Type 2 diabetes lowers life expectancy by 5-10 years and most diabetics die from heart disease or stroke, due to its complications and related conditions. Other conditions that occur with diabetes include renal disease, cataracts, and foot ulcers.
Although there is a genetic component to diabetes development, type 2 is highly amenable to diet and lifestyle changes. The increase in prevalence is undeniable, suggesting that we must look at the foods we consume and how they affect our insulin-glucose balance. One clear and astonishing connection occurs between the increased consumption of high fructose-corn syrup (HFCS) and the prevalence and risk of developing diabetes.
Globally, there is an estimated 285 million people with diabetes and this statistic is expected to increase by 7 million each year. One study looked at the availability of HFCS in 43 countries and compared it with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Many variables associated with diabetes were measured, including total sugar and calorie intake, obesity, and impaired glucose tolerance. Despite similarities in obesity and total sugar and caloric intake, the results showed that countries with the greatest exposure to HFCS had a prevalence of type 2 diabetes 20% higher than countries with low availability! While this doesn’t show that HFCS causes diabetes, it shows a strong positive correlation that HFCS consumption relates to a greater risk of developing diabetes.
HFCS was developed in the 1960′s and due to its easy production, low cost and ease of use in processed foods, it quickly gained popularity from the 1970′s. HFCS has now replaced 50% of the total added dietary sugars that we see in products and it is often the first and most abundant item listed on the ingredient lists of processed and packaged foods, such as pastries, soft drinks and sauces. Although the FDA decided that HFCS is “natural”, it is manufactured through a multi-step process that exposes it to chemicals, including mercury-grade caustic soda. This has raised concern over mercury exposure and levels in HFCS. The Corn Refiners Association states that there is no DNA material in HFCS from the genetically modified corn that it is produced from. (But of course they would say that).
HFCS accounts for 10% of our calories each day, and in adolescents its higher at 15%! Prior to the development and use of HFCS, Americans had 90 servings of added sugars per year (2 servings/week). This increased drastically to 600 servings/year (2 servings/day). Over 50% of schoolchildren consume beverages sweetened with HFCS, causing an earlier and greater risk for diabetes.
Many studies have compared the effects of sucrose (table sugar) and HFCS on diabetes risk and contributing factors. They conclude that despite similar structure—both contain glucose and fructose—HFCS causes insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalance, not sucrose. The difference between HFCS and sucrose is that the fructose in HFCS is in the free form, whereas in sucrose it is bonded to a glucose molecule. Studies indicate the when free fructose consumption is compared to free glucose consumption, the fructose group experiences increased fasting insulin and reduced insulin sensitivity—the diagnostics for diabetes. Although both groups experience weight gain, the fructose group experience greater weight gain in the abdomen and around the organs, known as visceral fat. Visceral fat impedes the proper functioning of the organs and is a causative risk factor for developing diabetes. Similarly, free fructose increases triglyceride levels and produces LDL, aka ‘bad’ cholesterol, that is more detrimental to our blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Acute consumption of free fructose causes increases in blood pressure, which can accelerate the heart disease and stroke complications associated with HFCS.
In my opinion, HFCS is the ‘devil’ in our diets. With the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, HFCS quickly exacerbates morbidity. Research continually demonstrates that a whole foods diet (=nutrients!) prevents and even reverses disease. Always read the label of your food products to make sure they do not contain HFCS. Better yet, if it comes in a box, can, or package, do not eat it!
Do you eat processed and refined foods? Have you found healthy alternatives to the packaged foods society is addicted to (chocolate bars, twinkies, soft drinks)? Have you checked the products that you regularly consume for HFCS?