Low-hanging fructose

Simon Phipps often feeds me tidbits — intellectual rather than gustatory — having to do with nutrition. Recently he recommended I watch a lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF in August of last year, called Sugar: The Bitter Truth.

This lecture is really better described as a call to action with biochemistry diagrams. Lustig argues that fructose is an evil that’s been behind the rise in obesity and metabolic syndrome of the last few decades; that soda, juice, and sports drinks loaded with sucrose or HFCS are the single biggest factor in childhood obesity (his specialty); and that we had better start treating fructose as the chronic hepatotoxin it is and stay the heck away from it. I agree.

The lecture series is called Current Controversies in Nutrition: Letting Science Be the Guide. Well, yeah — what other guide have they been using all this time, for goodness’ sake? You know, I started my carbgrrl.com series admitting a worry about looking like a loon…no more. Richard Nikoley, primal blogger extraordinaire, often talks about Modern Ignorance and the ways in which supposed experts tie themselves in knots because of broken preconceptions about stuff we used to understand instinctively. (Richard blogged this lecture, and also another I’ll touch on here sometime soon…) It sure looks like Lustig is emerging from a cave of institutional ignorance, blinking — and pissed off. Good.

Lustig’s obsession with fructose probably doesn’t give an accurate picture of all the factors in play. He seems to think glucose is just fine to consume in whatever quantity — it’s the “energy of life”, he says (around 1:26:00) — and so I suspect he’s misguided about the evils of spiking one’s insulin over and over, in addition to spiking one’s triglycerides. Remember that the glucose that feeds our brains and bodies can be made from practically any old thing lying around, as I’ve discussed before. And in GCBC, (The Great) Gary Taubes discusses the pernicious effects of eating fructose and glucose in combination:

Because sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS-55) are both effectively half glucose and half fructose, they offer the worst of both sugars. The fructose will stimulate the liver to produce triglycerides, while the glucose will stimulate insulin secretion. And the glucose-induced insulin response in turn will prompt the liver to secrete even more triglycerides than it would from the fructose alone, while the insulin will also elevate blood pressure apart from the effect of fructose. [GCBC, Ch. 12, p. 201]

I have a couple of other quibbles (I’m not sure Lustig’s lust for fiber is entirely warranted), but it’s absolutely worth watching if you care about this stuff.

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10 Comments to “Low-hanging fructose”

  1. Scott Johnson 7 February 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Eve,
    Speaking of Gary Taubes, with your connections, can you ask him to turn his rigorous, unblinking eye on the issue of global warming? Dr Edward Tufte said that if someone won’t show you ALL their data, look for a rat. AFAIK, there are 3 sources of temp data, 2 satellite based and one ground based. Most of the Earth isn’t covered by the ground based sensors but that is what the IPCC/NASA/East Anglia chose to use.
    The CO^2 effect seems clear but I am beginning to get the same feeling I had about epidemiology. Fat is bad so if you want research money, you’d better say fat is bad.

  2. Richard Nikoley 7 February 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks much for the shout out.

  3. Eve 7 February 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Scott, I have no connections (thanks for thinking I do :-), but I’ve been tempted to start calling all the nutritional faux-science around fat being bad for you etc. Carbgate!

    I think we’re better served when we apply a skeptical eye to all scientific claims, and when we acknowledge that just because some source of information works for a nonprofit or the government, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a bias or a stake in the game.

    (Um, that’s a lot of grammatical negatives to sort out, but hopefully you see what I mean.)

  4. Tom Passin 7 February 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Just to mention that, in casting a skeptical eye at reported “scientific” results – no one should go the other way and start credulously accepting *non* – scientific claims.

  5. Eve M. 7 February 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Indeed… Vigilance is always a good idea. (That’s one reason I like Richard’s blog; it’s intellectually honest.)

  6. Cynthia1770 9 February 2010 at 8:25 am #

    Interesting post. I’d like to address the statement from GCBC “since sucrose and HFCS-55 are effectively both half glucose and half fructose.” This is what the CRA would like you to believe: that HFCS-55 and sucrose are just about the same.
    HFCS-55 is 55%frucotse:45% glucose. This ratio looks very similar to the sucrose 50:50. That is, until you do the math.
    55%:45% = 55/45 =1.22. This means in every American bottled
    Coke there is, compared to glucose, 22% more fructose. What does
    this mean in everyday terms? Drinking five HFCS-55 sweetened Cokes
    is equivalent to drinking 4 1/4 SUCROSE sweetened Cokes plus
    3/4 can of pure FRUCTOSE sweetened beverage. Considering that the average teen chugs a couple of sodas a day that’s a lot of extra fructose assaulting our livers. I’ll always wonder why the
    CRA chose the 55:45 ratio. Was it simply that 55:45 simulated sucrose-
    like sweeteness, or was it made a little sweeter so end manufacturers
    could use less, or did the chemists at ADM find out that 55:45 was
    a touch addictive. (Forgive the conspiratorial overtones)

  7. Eve M. 9 February 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Cynthia, you make a good point. At the margin, HFCS-55 has even more fructose than sucrose (table sugar) does, and so perhaps, ounce for ounce, modern Coke is even worse for us than the old-fashioned kind made with cane sugar. I think Taubes’s point is that glucose isn’t good for you either, and that there are synergistic effects that make the two together a nightmare. It may be that dramatically upping the glucose contribution lowers the overall harm — however, I don’t buy it when Lustig says it’s perfectly fine to just consume straight glucose.

    (I’m just finishing reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which I believe Michael Pollan asserts that there’s a range of ratios that HFCS-55 actually “floats” in, such that sometimes it dips below 50/50… Perhaps if I can uncover the real story behind the ratio, I’ll turn it into a post someday.)

  8. Jeff S. 3 March 2010 at 6:24 pm #


    It’s hard to forgive the “conspiratorial overtones” when your math is wrong and your use of the phrase “…22% more fructose” is, although technically correct, used to make a meaningless comparison. A 12 ounce HFCS Coke has ten percent more fructose than would a 12 ounce Coke sweetened with sucrose.

    I’d stick my head in an oven if I were forced to obsess about food and what I eat as much you, Eve. You’ll never get those days/months/years back.

  9. Eve M. 3 March 2010 at 6:49 pm #


    Glad you don’t have to worry about your health and can drink as much Coke as you like without negative consequences, whether it’s sweetened with sucrose or HFCS… I’ve got major heart disease risk factors on both sides of my family, and simply would rather understand the mechanisms than be ignorant. Getting future days/months/years back is what’s it’s all about. Have a nice day.

  10. Eve 24 March 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    A late-breaking update: If this study is any good, it seems to support Cynthia’s argument over Jeff’s, at least for rats: A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain