Type 2 diabetes in those under 30 and HFCS: both ‘unheard of’ a while back

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February 4, 2015

sodaboy1-250x374By BILL BONVIE

A report just published by the Mayo Clinic has identified the fructose being added to products in the form of  high fructose corn syrup as a particular driver of type 2 diabetes.  Of course, that’s not the first time such a link has been made — but it does provide further support for an increasingly plausible explanation of why so many young people are now being classified as diabetics.

While it’s common knowledge that this acquired disease (as differentiated from type 1, or juvenile diabetes) now afflicts people of all ages, I wasn’t aware until last week of the existence of a group called Students with Diabetes that currently has chapters on several dozen college campuses throughout the country, including a number of state universities. In fact, it was a brief reference on a TV news program that prompted me to Google this organization, which is dedicated to helping young adults with diabetes to connect with each other in colleges and universities and “equip them with the tools and information they need to succeed.”

But that’s hardly surprising, given the fact that, according to the website HealthDay, the incidence of type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents has “skyrocketed” from less than 5 percent in 1994 to about 20 percent of all newly diagnosed cases, prompting the journal Diabetes Care to call it an “emerging epidemic.”

In fact, as HealthDay put it, “type 2 diabetes used to be practically unheard of in people under 30,” as I can readily attest. Back in my student days a few decades ago, the only time I can ever recall the disease even having been mentioned was when a high-school classmate who suffered from type 1 went into a diabetic coma and died. But as for type 2, that was something no one in our age group ever even thought about, let alone had to deal with themselves.

So did we all lead healthier lives back then?  Well, no and yes.

We certainly ate all kinds of processed foods and confections, and drank our share of sodas and “sugary drinks,” which were constantly being hyped in ad campaigns. In that respect, kids of that era weren’t much different from kids today (just watch any of the old movies depicting teens in the ‘1950s and ‘60s). But somehow, not only did we not get type 2 diabetes, but only a very small minority of my contemporaries could be described as “fat,” let alone “obese,” as so many of the teens and pre-teens in these times obviously are.

So what might account for this dramatic divergence between then and now? Well, consider the fact that all the sodas and snack foods sold back in those days were genuinely “sugary” – which is to say, they were sweetened with sucrose, or old-fashioned table sugar. No one had ever even heard of high fructose corn syrup, the much cheaper laboratory sweetener now found in nearly all soft drinks and any number of other products as well.

The widespread substitution of HFCS for sucrose, which was done for no other reason than to increase food manufacturers’ profit margins, was one those stealthy, clandestine changes very few people paid any attention to at the time. But it’s come back to haunt us — or you might say, to haunt our health —  in a number of very real ways, not the least of which may well be the growing epidemic of diabetes we’re now seeing, particularly among America’s young people.

Coincidence? Not according to research

Now, of course, there are those who will try to tell you that this is all “coincidence” – that there’s no “proof” of one being related to the other, Or to blame it all on greatly increased soda consumption, or on the fact that kids just don’t get enough exercise any more.  They’ll try to tell you that sugar and HFCS have similar ratios of glucose and fructose, and that in any event, “the body handles them the same way.” And that fructose occurs naturally in fruit.

So what about such claims? Well, for starters, as we’ve noted in previous blogs, the glucose and fructose in HFCS aren’t bound together the way they are in sucrose – and as experts have pointed out, the two are metabolized by the body in a far different manner. Similarly, the naturally-occurring fructose in fruit is locked together with fiber, which allows your liver to metabolize it slowly. By contrast, HFCS “floods your bloodstream, overwhelming your liver’s processing capacity,” according to David Brownstein, M.D.

But does all that translate into an “emerging epidemic” of diabetes? While correlation isn’t proof of cause, it well might, according to some of the research that’s been done. For example, a 2007 Rutgers study that found that that soft drinks sweetened with HFCS may contribute to the development of diabetes, particularly in children, due to the “astonishingly high” levels of reactive carbonyls in those beverages associated with unbound molecules of fructose and glucose. Another study done by the University of California’s Keck School of Medicine in 2013 found that countries that used HFCS had a 20 percent higher rate of diabetes than those that don’t.

In fact, the switch from sugar to HFCS is even likely to be responsible for higher soda consumption among today’s kids, due to the fact that consuming fructose in that form has a minimal effect on brain regions that control appetite, according to a 2013 Yale University study.

And now, if to emphasize the point, comes the Mayo clinic’s confirmation of a particularly strong link between diabetes and HFCS consumption.

So when you hear that type 2 diabetes in young people was “unheard of” a few decades ago, just remember – so was high fructose corn syrup.

Bill Bonvie is the author of “Repeat Offenders,” a collection of previously published essays available at Amazon.com