It’s no secret that Americans have increased the amount of sugar in their diets over the years. However, the types of sugar added to our food vary and have different health consequences.
In the 1950s, Richard Marshall and Earl Kooi discovered and patented the use of glucose isomerase to convert corn syrup into high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup proved to be a cheaper, sweeter and more shelf-stable option than traditional table sugar.
Table or cane sugar is usually grown in tropical climates. However, the political instability of the 1960s made the cane sugar supply unpredictable. With Marshall and Kooi’s discovery, U.S. industrial food companies used the Midwest’s reliable corn supply to make an alternative natural sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup.
As more companies used this new sugar in their foods, the increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has coincided with the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and has been medically linked to the increased incidence of “metabolic syndrome.” To help consumers make more informed decisions about their diet, the Food and Drug Administration should require disclosure of the amount of fructose in food products’ nutritional labels.
Table sugar is made of two carbohydrates, fructose and glucose. When we eat these sugars, they are absorbed into our bloodstream and broken down by our liver. Although these carbs are similar, our bodies digest them differently.
Glucose digestion is a regulated process with many “checkpoints” to prevent mistakes. Fructose bypasses these checkpoints and overwhelms our liver which can lead to the development of metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is a broad term used to describe a group of risk factors that frequently lead to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. and the risk of death differs based on race and ethnicity.
Studies have shown fructose digestion is associated with increased fat storage, gout flares and insulin resistance. About 34% of American adults have metabolic syndrome.
To combat these trends, the FDA should require companies to list the amount of fructose in their products in the Nutritional Facts label. Given the FDA already enforces the labeling of trans fats, they could easily impose a similar requirement to include fructose as a subset of carbohydrates. This would allow consumers to have more information to make the best decisions for their health and nutrition.
Michael Calderon, Scott McGaugh, Catherine O’Byrne and Matthew Willman are medical students at the University of Florida College of Medicine.