Current Issue

Apr. 28, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 12


Study of high-fructose corn syrup stirs critics

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the April 28, 2010, issue

From left, Elyse Powell ’11, Professor Bart Hoebel, visiting research associate Nicole Avena *06, and Miriam Bocarsly ’06 linked high-fructose corn syrup and obesity in a study of rats.
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications
From left, Elyse Powell ’11, Professor Bart Hoebel, visiting research associate Nicole Avena *06, and Miriam Bocarsly ’06 linked high-fructose corn syrup and obesity in a study of rats.

In late February, the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior published an interesting study from Princeton psychology professor Bart Hoebel’s lab: Over an eight-week period, rats that consumed high-fructose corn syrup, dissolved in water, gained significantly more weight than rats that consumed a regular sugar-and-water solution, even though they had the same calorie intake. In a longer version of the experiment, rats fed high-fructose corn syrup also had more abdominal fat and elevated levels of triglycerides, two symptoms associated with obesity.

High-fructose corn syrup is widely used as a sugar substitute, in foods ranging from soft drinks to Wonder Bread, and its prevalence has been a hot-button nutrition issue.  

Hoebel’s research went largely unnoticed until March 22, when a University press release announced the findings. In the week that followed, news organizations like CNN and The Washington Post picked up the story, and some 200,000 people viewed the article on Princeton’s Web site. Critics quickly weighed in — mostly on blogs — questioning the study’s methods and its meaning. One common complaint was that in highlighting the ill effects of high-fructose corn syrup, Hoebel seemed to absolve sugar as a contributor to obesity.

Hoebel, who admits he was surprised by the volume of responses, tried to clarify and explain the study, replying to bloggers and individual e-mailers with help from lead author Miriam Bocarsly ’06, a Princeton graduate student.  

On the blog of New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, for example, Hoebel agreed that “sucrose can also increase body weight,” but noted that in this specific study, a 10 percent sucrose solution did not cause obesity, while an 8 percent high-fructose corn syrup solution did.  

Why the difference? It may be that the chemical structures of the two sweeteners cause them to be metabolized in different ways, Hoebel said. In sucrose, each fructose molecule is bound to a glucose molecule, while in high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules are free and unbound. But exactly how that translates into weight gain remains unclear. “The one thing everybody agrees on is that we need more research,” Hoebel said.

Hoebel, a neuroscientist, aims to shed light on the neural mechanisms in the brain that control appetite. Follow-up work could include a study that measures the combined effects of a high-fat diet and the consumption of high-­fructose corn syrup on the brain and behavior.  

For Hoebel, being a blog headliner for a week was exciting, rewarding, and at times frustrating. Based on reader reactions, he said, “It’s clear that lots of people are sincerely interested in eating well and exercising more, but it’s a difficult question — and a controversial question — exactly what it means to eat well.”
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3 Responses to Study of high-fructose corn syrup stirs critics

Emmanuel D. Macapagal, D.V.M., Says:

2011-07-06 16:43:15

It is not surprising that there is an epidemic of eating related disorders -- obesity, diabetes, heart disease, strokes -- because of still not well-elucidated effects of high-fructose corn syrup, a known sugar substitute. Let truth unfold. You are what you eat. Eat well; not much; mostly plants. That's the simplest answer to the question, what it means to eat well.

Glen Shue Says:

2011-08-07 23:55:55

I have only a copy of an article written by Hillary Parker. I retired from the FDA Div. of Nutrition in 1982. I did work with a potential bio-Calorie feeding assay which did work quite well. As for the fructose thing, it is not possible for the same caloric intake of the corn product vs sucrose to give different weights as described. If the metabolic pathway for fructose does favor storage as fat there is the likelihood of a smaller weight gain since, in human terms, it takes in the order of 3,000 kcal to lay down one pound of fat as compared to less than 500 kcal for a pound of lean body mass. Also, the corn product should not be referred to as a sugar substitute. It is sugar (glucose and fructose plus some possible higher glucose chains).

Tanvir Hafiz Says:

2012-01-31 11:20:42

I have weeded out HFCS from my own diet. I now am free of IBS and a "sense of doom" regarding my weight. I can now fit into a pair of pants that I couldn't fit into before. Fructose is metabolised in the liver. If there is too much glucose in the bloodstream(from the glucose portion of the molecule), the fructose gets stored as glycogen or triglycedride (free floating fat). The trigylceride travels to every part of the body through the bloodstream. The body's fat cells receive the triglycerides and
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CURRENT ISSUE: Apr. 28, 2010