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Case Study: Metabolic Effects of High-Fructose Corn Syrup 

Dr. Nestle --

    In a recent Seattle PI article, picked up by MSNBC, about PCC Market banning high-fructose corn syrup, you were quoted as saying that if removed from products, high-fructose corn syrup would "be replaced with sucrose (table sugar) or honey or organic cane juice, all of which are basically the same as HFCS, or artificial sweeteners."  While the total caloric content of the products might stay the same, there are metabolic effects of corn syrup and HFCS that are very different, at least in a part of the population.

    As a person with first hand experience with the differences, I want to share my story with you in the hopes that you can lead (or at least encourage) research into what it is about HFCS and other corn sweeteners that makes them different and how their wide spread use effects public health. 

    As an engineering student at Virginia Tech in the early '90s, I noticed a strong correlation between products I ate that contained HFCS and acne breakouts. Specifically I noticed that I was getting similar reactions about four hours after drinking Sprite and about four hours after eating a certain type of bar cookie that my grandmother makes.  After investigating I found that the only common ingredient was corn syrup.  These breakouts (which continue to this day) are typified by the formation of small (~0.5 mm) white or light yellow nodules that have the consistency of (fresh, not dried) walnut or pecan flesh in or near sebaceous glands. 

    Over time I found that by carefully reading food labels and avoiding products containing corn syrup (and it's derivatives), I could greatly reduce the number and severity of my acne breakouts.  I also found that much of the time when I did have a breakout, I could trace it back to a specific product I had consumed.  On several occasions I've even found out that a product I initially started buying that hadn't used corn syrup had changed their formulation, because it caused a breakout and I went back and rechecked the ingredients. A specific example of this was Sara Lee Cinnamon Raisin bagels (the last brand of bagels on most national chain shelves that had been free of corn syrup). 

    I have not found any other sweeteners, natural, processed or artificial, that cause similar problems for my body.  I have found that other forms of fructose (mostly in products from outside the US) and that other corn based products or ingredients do not cause reactions.  I haven't ever found an organic corn syrup so I can't draw any conclusions about the effects of industrial scale farming or processing.  I also suspect that the main culprit is something (enzymes used in production?) in the corn sweeteners that, presumably, get more concentrated along with the fructose as it is processed from corn syrup to high-fructose corn syrup to corn syrup solids.  For example I've found that my body can process the corn syrup in one Oreo cookie a day without a reaction, but not two, and that the small amount of corn syrup solids in a single Necco Wafer causes a significant breakout.

    For background, I'm a nominally healthy and active male, now 38 years old, weighing about 165 and 5'7" tall, with no other known allergies or adverse reactions to food products.  I would be willing to participate in controlled academic studies to confirm and better understand my personal observations.

    Over the years I've met a number of other individuals that also get adverse reactions from corn syrup, but seem to do fine with other sweeteners. Not all of these reactions are identical or even similar to mine, but there is significant anecdotal evidence that HFCS is not the same as other sweeteners.

    Thanks for your time, and I hope that this informal case study will help you understand that, from a public health stand point, there are differences between high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners that we don't fully understand and that these differences deserve serious academic research. 

    Tom Sayles
    Maple Valley, WA

BTW -- This is also posting to my blog "Tom's Words of Wisdom" at

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