Obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig: HFCS is ‘a significant factor’ in child’s type 2 diabetes

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October 1, 2013

Ten teaspoons of HFCS are in this 20-ounce drink.

Although a civil action filed on behalf of a diabetic teen-age girl against the leading manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup is still at an early stage, significant findings are already coming to light in court documents, including a leading expert’s opinion about just how bad HFCS is for the body, and the degree to which this test-tube sweetener differs from ordinary sugar.

Last week Buffalo, N.Y. attorney J. Michael Hayes, who initiated the lawsuit this past June against agribusiness giant Cargill and five other manufacturers of HFCS, filed a response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case that included an extensive affidavit on the health effects of HFCS consumption.  The information it contained came from pediatric endocrinologist Robert H. Lustig, M.D., an eminent expert in the field of obesity, metabolism and disease.

Lustig’s description of the damaging nature of HFCS, including all the side effects caused by that extra jolt of fructose in the sweetener, would be enough to turn anyone who casually attempts to avoid the additive into a confirmed label checker. According to the affidavit, his professional opinion — one expressed “with reasonable medical and scientific certainty” — is that the HFCS that the plaintiff, now 15, has consumed over her lifetime has been “a significant factor in causing and bringing about” her type 2 diabetes.

Lustig states in his affidavit that HFCS is a “totally ‘man-made’” unnatural ingredient, that has “become nearly omnipresent in American foods and beverages” and that “accelerates cellular aging in the human body.”

Lustig also confirms what many consumers have intuitively figured out — that “sucrose (sugar) and HFCS have different metabolic effects,” including those that come from the much higher fructose content of HFCS which can range from 55 to 90 percent, and in the case of crystalline fructose to practically 100 percent. (Sucrose, or natural sugar, by contrast is a 50/50 combination of bound glucose and fructose).

According to Lustig, the metabolic effects of consuming these higher fructose amounts in HFCS contribute to numerous diseases and conditions including:

  • Insulin resistance (which “can and does lead to type 2 diabetes”);
  • Damage to the intestinal lining known as “leaky gut syndrome”;
  • Liver insulin resistance, triggered by the activation of a liver enzyme which “inactivates a key messenger of insulin action…”;
  • Extra insulin released by the pancreas due to liver insulin resistance;
  • Blocking of the “leptin signal” due to high insulin that causes “individuals (to) still feel hungry even though they have eaten.”

Leptin, a hormone that was discovered 11 years after HFCS was granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status by the Food and Drug Administration, is produced by fat cells and communicates with the brain, in effect ‘telling’ the hypothalamus that enough fat has been stored and to basically to ‘stop eating’. When the leptin signal is interfered with, Lustig said in his affidavit, the brain “’thinks’ the body is starving” resulting in increased appetite and the storage and craving of “more energy.”

“The fructose in HFCS,” Lustig says, “…’tricks’ the brain into wanting more food and stimulates excessive and continued consumption.”

The corn refiners’ new and improved HFCS story just for consumers!

Also included in attorney Hayes’ submission to the court are documents showing that in 1997 a lengthy brief submitted by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) as part of an antidumping investigation related to imports of HFCS, clearly state the fact that HFCS and sugar are not “like” products, noting that the “differences in physical characteristics between HFCS and sugar are so striking” that one could not confuse the two in any way.

This is certainly a different tune than the “sugar is sugar” story the CRA presented to consumers in its multimillion-dollar marketing campaign launched several years ago that accompanied its failed FDA petition seeking to change the HFCS name on ingredient labels to “corn sugar.”

And the CRA continues to tell consumers to this day that the two sweeteners are very much alike, with its “Sweet Surprise” website referring to HFCS as “simply a form of sugar made from corn.”  But perhaps the real “surprise” here is how CRA experts can change their stories depending on who the audience is.

One CRA favorite is John S. White, Ph.D., founder of White Technical Research, who is quoted on the corn refiners’ website as saying that HFCS is “not meaningfully different in composition or metabolism” from sugar. However in a 1997 affidavit that is among the plaintiff’s exhibits, White stated that HFCS is “unique” has “functional differences” from sugar, that HFCS “is the result of extensive scientific research…in the field of enzyme-catalyzed molecular transformation,” that the additive reacts differently in various food items and that “it should be clear that sucrose and HFCS are distinctly different products.”

Another important distinction between HFCS and real sugar that consumers are not informed about has to do with the very important aspect of the varying fructose levels in HFCS, which can be up to 90 percent in some formulations.

Research into these highly fluctuating fructose amounts has spurred Citizens for Health to petition the Food and Drug Administration to require that products containing HFCS have the actual amount of fructose specified on the label. (To sign the Citizens for Health petition, go here, to read it, go here).

When I first spoke to attorney Hayes about his case this summer he told me that while this is the first legal action of its kind, it most certainly won’t be the only one. Because the government has been “compromised,” and industry is making too much money to change any HFCS labeling regarding the addition of “warning labels,” he maintained the “only choice is litigation.”

And that, he said, “is what we’re doing.”

Linda Bonvie