Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are even worse for you than you thought

Beverages containing sugar (and/or high fructose corn syrup) are known to contribute to the obesity epidemic that is raging in the U.S. currently. People who count every calorie in the food they eat may pick up a can of sweetened soda and drink it without being aware that they may have just consumed 300 calories. The calories in the excess carbohydrates taken in that are above the number of calories burned are retained, leading to weight gain. This, among other things (like lack of exercise, poor food choices and others) are likely driving our obesity outbreak.

A large study has recently shown that even drinking one can of sweetened soda daily can substantially increase the risk for type II diabetes. But it also showed that sugar-containing soda can also significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and fatal heart disease as well as stroke, independent of whether or not the patient has diabetes. Data from the study shows that people drinking one (or more) sugar-sweetened beverages daily had a 26% higher risk of developing type II diabetes, a 35% increased risk of having a heart attack (or other fatal heart disease) and a 16% increase in the risk of having a stroke.

The researchers also looked at the role fructose (fruit sugar) plays in this scenario. High-fructose corn syrup is fairly ubiquitous. It’s used to sweeten any number of foods, soda being one of them. If you look at the nutrition facts on that can of soda you’re sipping now, you’ll probably see it listed as one of the top three ingredients. That can be important because of the biochemistry and metabolism of fructose. Somewhat simplified, glucose is absorbed by the small intestine, passes through the liver and into the bloodstream. Fructose, on the other hand, is absorbed by the small intestine, goes to the liver where it gets metabolized to triglycerides. The triglycerides can lead to insulin resistance (one of the contributors to type II diabetes) and to fatty liver. The triglycerides can also contribute to the formation of plaque in coronary, cerebral and other arteries.

The researchers say that while just decreasing or eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t end the obesity epidemic, it can help slow it. And it may have a significant effect on lowering cardiovascular diseases.

So, should you quit sugar-sweetened beverages altogether? No. You can still have them as a treat, just don’t make a daily habit of them. You can also look for sweetened beverages that do not use HFCS as a sweetening agent. But, they will contain other sugars, so again, limit their intake.

But lest you think that artificially sweetened beverages are better . . .

A forthcoming study took a look at the amount of “discretionary foods” consumed and what beverages are drunk with those foods.

Discretionary foods are those which contain little to no real nutritive value, and are typically high in salt, sugar, cholesterol or fats and calories. We usually think of these as junk foods, or “empty calories.” These foods are ones that can easily cause weight gain and may not leave us feeling full, so that we’re hungry again a fairly short time after eating.

Sugar free via Shutterstock

Sugar free via Shutterstock

The author looked at the eating and drinking habits of about 20,000 people from a large study. The beverages he looked at were: coffee, tea, alcohol, diet beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages. People who drank alcohol or sugar-sweetened beverages tended to have the highest daily calorie intake. Those who drank diet beverages or coffee had the highest calorie intake that was from discretionary foods, and therefore had poorer-quality diets (as did those who also drank sugar-sweetened beverages).

One of the outcomes is that people who do drink diet beverages (or coffee) tend to eat more calories and more of those calories come from junk (discretionary) foods. That leads to less nutritious diets and, often, weight gain.

So it appears that both artificially-sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverage drinkers make poor food choices and can gain weight. Just switching to a diet beverage may not be at all helpful if you’re trying to lose weight unless you look at your other eating habits, too.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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21 Responses to “Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are even worse for you than you thought”

  1. Blue MunKay says:

    Hi Bill From Dover

  2. Moderator3 says:

    Well, I was going to volunteer, but I see I’m not needed.

  3. zorbear says:

    I prefer to moderate my moderation, thank you very much…

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  5. hidflect says:

    There’s pushback from the lobbyists who point out HFCS is only 5% more fructose than glucose compared to “natural” sugar. But just try altering the fuel composition in your car by 5% and see how it runs. The liver’s processing of sugar is a very exact formulation. Tip that balance out and you get problems that haven’t even been formally identified yet. Ban HFCS.

  6. RepackRider says:

    Years ago I quit all forms of sweet drinks, including fruit juices. I lost 20 pounds in a month, never put any back on.

  7. Indigo says:

    Even the fruit we grow here in the subtropics is engineered through genetic modification, splicing, and other arcane techniques. There’s nothing “original” about the fruit that makes it to market.

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  9. DoverBill says:

    So natural = bad, artificial = probably even worse.

    That’s it…I quit!

  10. Indigo says:


  11. emjayay says:

    I know there’s a lot of research, but that article did not quote any of it. It just invented a conclusion.

  12. emjayay says:

    And paleo fruit wasn’t the fruit of even a thousand years ago. Fruit and vegies have way more sugar and less fiber than the original hunter and gatherer stuff, particularly outside the tropics.

  13. nicho says:

    That’s because your brain is wired to eat as much sugar as possible – whenever available. In the old days, it would save your life, since sugar wasn’t available all the time. Today, it kills you.

  14. Indigo says:

    I don’t care for artificial sweeteners because they have an artificial taste to them. I like sugar, what the heck, and I like the sweetness of fresh fruit. I especially enjoy the turbinado sugar available at a slight extra cost, but as a rule of thumb, I’ll use sugar rather than the pink stuff. Or the yellow stuff. Or that increasing collection of artificial sweeteners on the tray. I’ll stick with sugar, thank you, and not much of that. Or honey, when available.

  15. Indigo says:

    You should be especially careful of fresh oranges. They’re loaded with sugar!

  16. nicho says:

    This is an excellent, if long (90-minute), video.

    Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology, explores the damage caused by sugary foods. He argues that fructose (too much) and fiber (not enough) appear to be cornerstones of the obesity epidemic through their effects on insulin.

  17. nicho says:

    Or to look at it another way, fat people are fat because they eat too many calories,

    Actually, there is a lot of recent research showing that to be inaccurate. That is an outdated belief. Over the short term, calorie restriction will cause weight loss, but it doesn’t persist over the long term.

    And yes, fruit is bad.

    Back in the days when our brain was being wired — and even more recently — people encountered ripe fruit only once a year. That was usually before the bad weather set in. Those who ate the fruit would gain weight and this would help them survive the bad weather.

    It wasn’t until the turn of the last century that we discovered a way to ship fruit so that people could eat it all year long. Within 20 years, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes skyrocketed.

    Because eating sugar when available was a survival technique, our brains are wired to eat as much of it as possible when available. The food companies discovered this and now load everything from tomato sauce, to salad dressing, to bread, and so on, with sugar. Hence, the obesity epidemic.

  18. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I’m a Type I diabetic, and I do need to be very careful with fruit. Juice is even more alarming.

  19. emjayay says:

    None of this proves what you claim it proves. The headline is not supported by the article.

    “People who do drink diet beverages (or coffee) tend to eat more calories and more of those calories come from junk (discretionary) foods.” No actual cause and effect there. There is nothing that shows that drinking diet soda leads to eating more calories and more junk food. Only that people who eat more calories (I assume meaning than other people or average of all people or than would maintain a healthy weight) and more junk food, also often drink diet soda.

    If fructose is bad, is fruit bad?

  20. nicho says:

    All sugar — in whatever form — is bad for you. Corn is bad for you. The problem is that corn is the basis of the US diet. Almost everything you eat — unless you stick to plant food — contains corn, even your meat. Corn = sugar. Sugar is a cumulative poison.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    It should surprise no one that people who drink soft drinks also eat junk food and other high-calorie/low-nutrient foods. Your post, however, makes it sounds as if there is some cause and effect rather than that sodas are just one of many unhealthy items overweight people consume.

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