Should Fructose Content Be Listed on Food Labels?
The fructose warriors (or is that worriers?) are on the warpath again. Nutrition Diva goes behind the hype.
Here we go again.
An advocacy group called Citizens for Health has petitioned the FDA to require food manufacturers to list the amount of fructose in foods. Nutrition facts labels already tell you how much sugar is in a food. But these folks want you to know how much of that is fructose and how much is other sugars, such as glucose.
Their argument mirrors the widely held belief that fructose is somehow uniquely to blame for the obesity epidemic and related health crises. As our fructose intake has climbed, so have rates of obesity and diabetes. In the lab, researchers have confirmed that feeding animals high levels of fructose makes them fat and sick. If this particular form of sugar is particularly dangerous, shouldn’t it be disclosed on the label, the way the amount of trans fat (a particularly harmful form of fat) is shown separate from the amount of total fat?
Is Fructose the Most Harmful Form of Sugar?
When you study nutritional biochemistry, you learn that different sugars have different metabolic pathways, or “fates” as they are sometimes called in the textbooks. You learn that, unlike other sugars, which are taken up into the blood stream and used by cells throughout the body, fructose is metabolized in the liver.
This used to be seen as an advantage, by the way. Because fructose is metabolized in the liver, it does not increase your blood sugar the way other sugars do. That’s why you’ll find fructose in a lot of products manufactured for diabetics. It’s also sweeter than other forms of sugar, so you can use less. As a result, fructose is also used in reduced-calorie products pitched at dieters.
Now, however, we’ve learned that too much fructose can have harmful effects. But as I pointed out in my podcast Is Fructose Toxic? we rarely consume fructose by itself. In general, we consume it with other sugars. In other words, our fructose intake hasn’t increased in a vacuum. We take in too much fructose these days because we take in too much sugar, period.
What Would Fructose Labeling Accomplish?
Supporters of this petition have drawn the parallel between fructose as a uniquely dangerous form of sugar and trans fats as a uniquely dangerous form of fat. And when labeling laws changed to require trans fats to be disclosed on the label, manufacturers responded to the stigma around trans fats by reducing the amount of trans fats in their products. Great!
But creating pressure for manufacturers to reduce the amount of fructose on the label could have some unintended consequences.
Unintended consequence #1: More expensive food. One way to keep that number low would be to use cane or beet sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS). Both of these forms of sugar have virtually the same amount of fructose as most high fructose corn syrup. But the fructose in these sugars is bonded to glucose, so it is technically “sucrose” and wouldn’t have to be listed on the label as fructose. (Interestingly, the group behind this petition gets more than half its funding from the Sugar Association.)
As far as your liver is concerned, replacing HFCS with cane sugar doesn’t really accomplish anything. But it could make sweet treats more expensive. The silver lining? If the cost to manufacture sweets or sweetened beverages suddenly doubled or tripled, packages would probably get smaller and more expensive, and people might start eating them more moderately.
Unintended consequence #2: More caloric food. Another option for fructose-fearing manufacturers would be to reformulate their products to replace some of the fructose with glucose. Unfortunately, they’d probably have to use more, because glucose doesn’t taste as sweet. So your sweets might have more calories. Those calories would be just as empty—there would just be more of them.
Unintended consequence #3: Increased risk of diabetes. Treats made with more glucose and less fructose would also send your blood sugar higher and could pose even higher diabetes risk.
A Simpler Solution to Fructose Overload
Of course, there is another way to reduce your fructose consumption without any of these unintended consequences: Just eat less sugar. It’s really that simple. Limit your consumption of added sugars—regardless of what they are or where they come from—and you have nothing to fear from fructose.
Nutrition Label Photo From Shutterstock