CyberSym Science and Society Blog
High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Villain or Scapegoat? Print E-mail
Written by Bruce R. Copeland and Gayle Knapp   
Thursday, 27 August 2009 13:18

Recently a friend posed the question: "Could a change in carbohydrate source affect protein formation?" The context for this question was a discussion about whether the shift to corn carbohydrate (principally high-fructose corn syrup) over the last 30 years could have somehow produced the apparent rise in autism? [This latter question might just as easily involve any of several other health conditions besides autism that have also shown a steep rise over the past 30 years.] In principle, the answer to both questions is YES, but not in the way you might expect. Both of these questions really center around the effects of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in our diet. Many people have recently become quite concerned about possible adverse effects from fructose consumption. The effects of fructose and glucose consumption are complicated and not completely understood. In the end, however, HFCS is probably more of concern because of its contribution to our overall increased consumption of simple sugars rather than because of any specific fructose effect.


Carbohydrate is an essential part of the human diet. Carbohydrates range from simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose) to complex chains of those sugars. The more complex the carbohydrate, the slower its rate of digestion. In fact, some complex carbohydrates are effectively indigestible (fiber). Because carbohydrate is so important, our bodies have highly complicated and regulated mechansims for storage and use of carbohydrate (see e.g. [1, 2]). The best known of these mechanisms is the insulin system that reacts to and controls blood sugar (blood glucose). Depending on circumstances (exercise, stress, etc), several other hormones (glucagon, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol) also help regulate carbohydrate storage and levels. All these hormones (including insulin) affect and respond to varied sugar/carbohydrate levels and also affect other aspects of physiology, including protein synthesis and fat metabolism. Though metabolized by many of the same pathways, glucose and fructose differ in some key respects. Insulin levels are highly influenced by glucose, but are only very indirectly sensitive to fructose. Fructose can be used in many (but not all) of the same ways as glucose, and fructose is generally considered to be more easily converted to fat than glucose.