Fructose: healthy or hazardous?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2008

Fructose is fruit sugar so it must be good for you, right? Our Stone Age ancestors ate plenty of fruit and the very earliest ones were just as much vegetarian/fruitarian as modern chimps, with the occasional garnish of bugs and birds' eggs. Their fruit however, was not exactly like ours.

Ancient wild fruit was small, fibrous and not too sweet. You won't find anything like it at your local supermarket and you wouldn't bother tossing it into your cart if you did. The last apple or peach that you ate was genetically modified — in the old-fashioned way of course, by selective breeding for the biggest, juiciest and sweetest. The sweetness of an apple is due to its content of fructose and sucrose, a lot by Stone Age standards but not by comparison with what's in your favorite soft drink.

By the mid-1970s food manufacturers embraced high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) because it was sweeter and cheaper than what they had been using. Catering to our collective sweet tooth they added HFCS to everything from spaghetti sauce to salad dressing, increasing the average American's intake by nearly 200 calories per day in sweeteners alone.

The calories that we take in liquids don't trigger our natural appetite-satisfying mechanism, our appestat that tells us that we've eaten enough. That makes it easy to overindulge — and we obviously do. Those extra 200 calories every day add up to about a one-pound weight gain every 2 ½ weeks. Adding to the obesity problem, our bodies convert excess fructose to fat very efficiently, perhaps more so than other forms of sugar.

Some nutritionists believe that the fattening of America is directly related to the rising intake of HFCS. That's at least partly true since super-sizing of soft drinks is so obvious and soda has replaced milk as a favorite beverage among young people.

The ongoing epidemic of type 2 diabetes, especially among children, has alarmed health experts and fructose is contributing to their concern. Most children have at least one fructose-containing drink every day. Adolescent boys average twice as many. That could explain why the complications of diabetes occur earlier in young persons than they do in older ones. High blood levels of fructose distort critical proteins and damage blood vessels. Complications of diabetes that once were seen in the elderly are appearing in thirty-somethings, including blindness, amputations and kidney disease.

The amount of any sugar in a piece of fruit is small compared to a 12-ounce soft drink. The other nutrients in fruit such as vitamins, antioxidants and fiber are what nature intended for us. We do need fruit; we don't need soda.

Banning or taxing HFCS in soft drinks and processed foods won't eliminate the problem. There are too many other factors that have made us one of the fattest and sickest nations on earth. A few generations ago our forebears were lean and healthy. They succumbed to diseases that modern medicine has conquered. Maybe it's time that we relearned what they knew.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.