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Global High Fructose Corn Syrup Use May Be Fueling Diabetes Increase

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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high fructose corn syrup global diabetes

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/TheCrimsonMonkey

It doesn’t matter where you look: the U.S., Mexico, Malaysia or Portugal, the more high fructose corn syrup consumption, on average, the more diabetes.

A new study of 43 countries in Global Public Health, published online November 27, found that adult type-2 diabetes is 20 percent higher in countries that consume large quantities of high fructose corn syrup. “The study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that indicates HFCS consumption may result in negative health consequences distinct from and more deleterious than natural sugar,” Michael Goran, of the University of Southern California Department of Preventive Medicine and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement.

Countries in which per person annual high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption was less than 0.5 kg had similar BMIs, daily calorie intake and total sugar intake as did countries in which HFCS was higher. The big difference in these two groups of countries was diabetes prevalence.

The link between HFCS and poor health outcomes—such as obesity or diabetes–has often been speculated, but it has been difficult to prove. The availability of the cheaper-than-sugar sweeteners starting in the U.S. in the 1970s appears to have helped boost the number of overall calories people imbibe. In the U.S. today, for example, high fructose corn syrup is in everything from sodas to ketchup. In fact, we each consume, on average, some 24.8 kilograms of this processed corn sweetener every year. With the extra calories, weight gain has quickened, leading to more obesity, one of the strongest risk factors for type-2 diabetes.

HFCS may also pose a greater risk for diabetes greater than pure sugar alone. Instead of a composition evenly divided between fructose and glucose like table sugar, HFCS contains as much as 30 percent more fructose. (The exact quantities are unknown because manufacturers are not required to disclose the amount on food and beverage packages.) Glucose is metabolized quickly and used as energy or retained as fat. But fructose processing is more complex. It is broken down primarily in the liver and seems to induce less leptin production (a hormone that signals fullness to the body) and less insulin (which is why sweeteners composed primarily of fructose are sometimes recommended for people who already have diabetes). Some studies have also found fructose consumption increases the types of fats that are linked to insulin resistance, a hallmark of diabetes. These scattered findings suggest that “our metabolism has not evolved sufficiently to be able to process the fructose from high fructose corn syrup in the quantities that some people are consuming it,” Stanly Ulijaszek, of the University of Oxford and study co-author, said in a prepared statement.

Some illuminating international differences emerged during the course of the study. For example, the European Union imposes production quotas for HFCS for member countries. Those countries, such as Sweden, that do not use the sweetener in their own food supply can export it to countries, such as Hungary, that are willing to buy more for residents. This distribution imbalance allowed the researchers to compare countries that were similar in other respects (BMI, gross national product, etc.) but different in HFCS consumption.

While the U.S. is the largest producer—and consumer—of HFCS and has been for decades (thanks in large part to farm subsidies), other countries are just beginning to experience high amounts of HFCS in the food system. Mexico, for example, long limited imports of HFCS to protect their own sugar market. In 2008, however, those barriers were removed, and for the past few years, HFCS has been flooding in from the U.S. The authors of the study argue that with the new findings, perhaps some of these policies should be revisited.

Further research into the mechanisms for the possible link between HFCS consumption and diabetes risk remains to be done. But, “if HFCS is a risk factor for diabetes—one of the world’s most serious chronic diseases—then we need to rewrite national dietary guidelines and review agricultural trade policies,” Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the International Association for the Study of Obesity, said in a prepared statement.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. alan6302 1:10 pm 11/27/2012

    The NAZI’s only subsidies crap that promote disease. This way their buddies in pharma reap the benefit

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  2. 2. OgreMk5 2:05 pm 11/27/2012

    I’m not sure I buy into it. The HFCS, especially in soda, is already broken down into glucose and fructose (by acidity) by the time you drink it. The ratio is slightly different than table sugar, but not by much.

    Personally, I think just the average size of things like cola and fast food drinks (and meals) is equally likely. This is based on the same argument. As HFCS has increase, diabetes has increased. As soda size has increased (from the 6 and 8 ouncers of the 60s to the 24 ouncers of today), diabetes has increase.

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  3. 3. alan6302 2:38 pm 11/27/2012

    processed table sugar is toxic as well. processed salt is toxic. ALL Processed food is crap. Why is processed salt 5 times the price of natural salt??? Because “they” want us on pharma.

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  4. 4. gooner 5:47 pm 11/27/2012

    Thats not what the commercial says.

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  5. 5. bob999999 8:37 pm 11/27/2012

    Correlation does not indicate cause and effect. Highest rates of diabetes are in high oil-producing counties. Does this mean that oil in the ground also causes diabetes.

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  6. 6. RSchmidt 10:34 pm 11/27/2012

    @bob999999, yes it does bob. Chronic use of false analogies also cause diabetes so you better have yourself tested.

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  7. 7. patrickh74 1:14 pm 11/28/2012

    @RSchmidt, I agree that this is a false analogy (in regards to bob999999) BUT the man may have ACCIDENTALLY came out with a valid corrilation. Diabetes is almost always more prevalent in highly industrialized societies. This is generally due to the increased availability of processed food stuffs over non-oil producing countries. Be careful who you make fun of. It might make you look way more stupid in the long run.

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  8. 8. edprochak 1:38 pm 11/28/2012

    According to the International Diabetes Foundation, the top 5 countries for prevalence of diabetes in the 20-79 age group are:
    1 Papua New Guinea 15.5%
    2 Mauritius 15.0%
    3 Bahrain 14.8%
    4 Mexico 14.2%
    5 Trinidad and Tobago 14.1%

    (USA is somewhere around 8%.)

    For oil production:
    Mexico is # 8.
    Bahrain is # 63.

    That doesn’t look like a correlation to me.

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  9. 9. sjfone 9:10 am 11/29/2012

    I have trouble metabolizing all this high fructose after being on my computer for four hours, perhaps if I drank an energy drink.

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  10. 10. barbara g 9:37 pm 11/29/2012

    Another thing that really needs to be looked into is the large amounts of sodium the is in processed food such as lunch meat. Most of the canned soups on the market run into the hundreds of MG per can. They only count the one half cup on the label some soups are one cup. Many are as high as 650 and up in one half cup if the can contains two servings that means that you are getting double the amount of sodium or 700 MG per can. This can lead to high blood pressure which can lead to many illnesses. Sodium is in everything you eat including pop. I believe this one the reasons we have so much heart disease in the US. We are supposed to only have 1500 MG of sodium daily according to WebMD and some other Medical sites. If you counted up everything you ate for just one day your sodium count would be in the thousands.

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  11. 11. Bops 10:44 pm 11/30/2012

    Not sure why, but I have a very negative food aversion to corn syrup.
    I think corn syrup has a bitter after taste.
    I always bake with sugar and do not to buy anything that has a lot of it.. Cane sugar tastes good! Sugar beets don’t taste as good. Even jams, have a bitter after taste if you slow down and really taste the it. The all the corn syrup products, corn grits, corn flour…yuck, but I love fresh corn and eat pop corn everyday! I won’t eat anything bitter! No idea why.

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  12. 12. Bops 10:50 pm 11/30/2012

    Sorry, about the typo’s.

    I do not like corn starch either, we use flour or arrow root. Tastes nicer. Yes, sometimes we do get take-out food, we like home cooked foods best.

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  13. 13. bradcomments 1:47 pm 12/20/2012

    Food companies are confusing us with their labels. They may say “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” on the package, but have a different variant of corn syrup in the food. Stop mislabeling now, by signing this petition:

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  14. 14. daktaklakpak 2:39 am 01/3/2013

    It seems like the only way for general consumer to be heard is to get lawyers involved. Organize class action lawsuit on and prove them wrong!

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