Could HFCS be a contributing factor to the sharp rise in childhood asthma?

Posted by
March 3, 2015

babyIt’s already been identified by researchers as a leading culprit in the current epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as well as a risk factor for such life-threatening illnesses as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, pancreatic cancer and heart disease.

And now, fructose – apparently meaning the “unbonded” type found in high fructose corn syrup — has just been implicated in the sharp rise in childhood asthma as well.

A new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has found the risk of asthma developing in mid-childhood (the age at which it was evaluated was 7.7 years) rose by 22 percent for children whose mothers consumed large quantities of fructose during the second trimester of pregnancy.

“A similar asthma association existed for the child’s fructose consumption at 2 years of age,” particularly “juice consumption,” according to the website MedPage Today, in its report on a presentation made by Lakeia Wright, M.D. to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology meeting in Houston.

While the report refers to the “the mother’s intake of sugar-sweetened beverages during pregnancy,” it repeatedly singles out “fructose consumption” as being associated with the increase in asthma risk.  The term “sugar-sweetened beverages” has now become shorthand for those actually sweetened with HFCS, which is used in practically all caloric soft drinks nowadays (with Coca-Cola’s Life, which has just been introduced on the market, being a notable exception). Many fruit juices also contain HFCS, as well as being a source of fructose that has become separated from the fiber with which it is naturally bound in fruit.

“We hypothesized that higher maternal prenatal and child fructose intake would be associated with childhood asthma,” Wright told the gathering. To test that hypothesis, researchers looked at data collected on questionnaires from more than 1,100 mothers in a health study of mothers’ diets during pregnancy and after birth known as “Project Viva.” The researchers also estimated children’s fructose intake at age 2.

She further noted that “different sources of fructose at different stages of development may be contributing to inflammation and the development of asthma,” with the mechanism being direct or indirect. She pointed out that in-utero lung development is an ongoing process during the second trimester of pregnancy, and that high fructose in a mother’s diet might be contributing to asthma development through an indirect inflammatory pathway. And as a two-year-old’s lungs are still in a developmental stage, fructose from juice beverages might contribute to asthma development through a direct inflammatory pathway as well.

Wright also linked increased fructose consumption to the current obesity epidemic in the U.S., as well to such multiple inflammatory conditions as insulin resistance, diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hypertension, and gout.

She acknowledged that the study had certain limitations, such as the fact it relied on self-reported information and the lack of adjustment for other dietary factors that could offset the pro-inflammatory effects of fructose, such as antioxidants. One that wasn’t mentioned, however, is the inability to do a comparative analysis of mothers who consumed truly “sugary beverages”  — that is, ones that are sweetened with real old-fashioned sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.

The only thing that might be used as a measuring stick is the rate of childhood asthma that existed decades ago, before the introduction of HFCS into the American diet. Like the diabetes epidemic, that development seems to have roughly corresponded with what Scientific American has called “asthma rates (that) have been surging around the globe over the past three decades.”

Admittedly, the reasons for that dramatic rise could be many and varied. But in light of this latest study, it now seems that the tremendous spike in our consumption of “free fructose” – one resulting from the proliferation of HFCS in so many products, and particularly beverages – might well be a contributing factor.