Recently, my daughter-in-law suggested I listen to the Stuff You Should Know podcast. I’ve been downloading it for awhile, but it wasn’t until I had some time alone out on the snowshoe trails that I decided to try the latest podcast to drop. As it turns out, it was a SYSK Selects on December 26, 2020 where an old podcast from 2014 was shared again.
This one was all about sugar. This is such a great topic after two weeks of holidays eating too many sweets! I enjoyed the presentation of the history of sugar and the different ways it is used, but it was the biology of high fructose corn syrup that really grabbed my interest. Most of the information on the podcast about the biology of sugar comes from the New York Times article Is Sugar Toxic? (which I plan to read soon).
Sugar vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup
For many years, sugar (sucrose) has been used as a food additive – a sweetener. It is made up of 50% glucose, 50% fructose. High fructose corn syrup, a more recent and highly prolific sweetener, particularly in the US, also has sucrose, but the ratio of fructose to glucose is different. Most often, there is 10% more fructose so that the ratio is 55% fructose, 45% glucose.
In our bodies, glucose can be used by any cell to make energy. Fructose, however, is mainly broken down in the liver. As it is processed in the liver, there are three options. It can be used as a fuel, converted to fats in the blood (triglycerides) or converted to stored fat.
As it turns out, when high fructose corn syrup hits the liver, it is almost alway converted to stored fat. As a syrup, it hits the liver faster. There is evidence that it is worse for us that the 50/50 fructose/glucose combination that is sucrose (e.g., table sugar). One reason we know this is the correlation with the American obesity epidemic after the widespread conversion to high fructose corn syrup as a food additive.
When our diets contain a lot of added sugar, we become more resistant to insulin, which in turn causes more glucose to circulate in the bloodstream. This triggers the pancreas to make more and more insulin. Insulin triggers fat storage, which can lead to obesity and heart disease.
As we become more insulin-resistant, we become pre-diabetic, where insulin production is no longer able to keep up with the amount of glucose circulating in the blood.
So certainly excess sugar is bad for you, particularly in processed and liquid form, and high fructose corn syrup is particularly bad for you. Over the holidays I spent far too much time in hospitals surrounded by sick people – and vending machines packed with pop and chocolate bars.
As educators, what does the curriculum around understanding the impact of processed sugars on health need to look like? Do we still see pop and chocolate bars as acceptable “snacks”? What more have we learned about the impact of processed sugars on our bodies since this podcast was published in 2014?
For further information on high fructose corn syrup, listen to the Stuff You Should Know podcast Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad for You? (April 28, 2009)
New York Times: Is Sugar Toxic?
Found My Fitness podcast: Refined Sugar: Its Effects on Mortality, the Brain, Cancer, Hormones and more.
Featured image by @neonbrand