Fructose and Cancer: Bad News for Fans of Soft Drinks and Candy

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Could we be witnessing the final nail in the coffin for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)? Despite the Corn Refiners Association’s continued assurances that HFCS is perfectly safe, a new study out of the University of California in Los Angeles, published in the journal Cancer Research, has found that fructose triggers pancreatic cancer cells to proliferate and grow more quickly. Certainly, resulting headlines like “Cancer cells slurp up fructose” aren’t helping the sugar’s image.

This study just adds to the charges against fructose: obesity, diabetes, increased triglycerides in the blood, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver to name a few. But the most important finding of the study is that fructose is used differently by the cancer cells than sucrose.

It was previously believed, and asserted repeatedly by the HFCS industry, that sugar is sugar, meaning all sugars are treated the same way in the body. Not so. Pancreatic tumour cells fed both glucose and fructose in this study were found to use the two sugars differently. The researchers said this study may help to explain other studies that have linked fructose intake with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer.

The researchers found that fructose, compared to glucose, activated a key cellular pathway that causes cancer cells to divide and multiply. In other words, while the tumor cells thrive on glucose, they readily use the fructose to proliferate. And not only did cancer cells prefer it, fructose also triggered cellular processes that enabled tumor cells to more rapidly use both glucose and fructose.

While fructose is found in most fruits, there is no need to start madly tossing your fresh produce. It’s the refined version of the sugar that you should be worried about. If you get a little bit of fructose from, say, an apple, you are also getting fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrient buffers found in the fruit, which make it unlikely to feed cancer.

Processed foods that use high amounts of refined fructose, on the other hand, are what clearly need to be eliminated from our diets. The major sources of fructose in our diets is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup or crystalline fructose in processed foods like soft drinks, sports drinks, candy, baked goods, fruit drinks, condiments, salad dressings and a whole host of other processed foods. So, read your labels!

Even though it’s the high-fructose corn syrup that’s taking the brunt of the media hit for this study, remember that table sugar is 50 percent fructose as well. HFCS is made up of between 55 percent and 65 percent fructose. Despite claims by food producers that they use “real sugar”, this shouldn’t really be looked upon as being a significantly healthier option. Yes, HFCS has been found to be worse in some cases, but sugar is still the bad guy it always was. Sugar manufacturers may be looking on this bad rap as a perfect PR opportunity, but don’t fall for this clever sleight-of-hand – switching your HFCS for sugar is going to have negligible effects on your health.

This study also has poor implications for many of the natural sweeteners that are mostly fructose based. Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, stands to make out worst in all of this, containing anywhere from 60-98 percent fructose – more than even HFCS. This sweetener was originally considered a health food due to its low glycemic index having little effect on blood sugar levels. However, considering it is mostly fructose and that fructose is to blame for a number of other problems even outside of the current study, this “health food” should really be avoided. Honey, similarly, has a large percentage of fructose; about the same as HFCS, but not as much as agave. Some consider raw honey, because it still contains its enzymes, vitamins and co-factors, in the same category as fruit. I consider the jury to be out on that one. It would be nice to see some studies on how raw honey affects tumour cells.

The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.

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