Longevity Hacks

What is the healthiest sugary drink? It’s complicated.

A new sugar study may influence what you drink next.

Originally Published: 

Pumpkin spice has officially returned, meaning spooky season is here. While drinking a PSL is more about vibes than anything else — and who can deny discount Halloween candy — an essential component of both is worth considering before you grab one more: sugar.

Sugar is ubiquitous in sweetened drinks like soda, syrupy coffees, and candy. It’s not great for you — but you probably already knew that. However, recent research adds a new reason to temper sugar intake and may cause you to look at the sweet stuff differently.

High-fructose corn syrup has an informal reputation of being the lesser of two evils. Natural sugar is still bad for you, but at least it’s not processed corny garbage.

According to a study published in July in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, that’s not exactly true. Both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup increase your risk factors for chronic illnesses, like type 2 diabetes, in the same way.

The study team found sugar-sweetened beverages, regardless of whether they use “natural” sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, have an increased risk factor for lower insulin sensitivity and fatty liver.

Perhaps you figured pure cane sugar is somehow better than processed food and drink that use high-fructose corn syrup. But this study suggests they both offer the same risk.

LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series from Inverse on the science-backed strategies to live better, healthier, and longer without medicine. Get more in our Hacks index.

The study, led by Desiree Sigala, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, looked at several groups of people who drank a cane sugar-sweetened beverage, a high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened one, and an aspartame-sweetened one. No matter whether a person consumed cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, their risk for chronic conditions increased.

What you need to know first — What’s the difference between sucrose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup? In order to answer those questions, there’s one more -ose to throw in there: glucose.

Pumpkin spice lattes, or PSLs, contain 50 grams of sugar.

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Glucose is a simple sugar. It’s a monosaccharide, meaning it contains one type of sugar. It’s naturally abundant in many foods like pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, and others. We use glucose for energy.

Fructose is another simple, naturally occurring monosaccharide largely found in honey and fruit.

Sucrose, or table sugar, is one molecule of glucose bonded to one molecule of fructose, yielding a disaccharide. It’s found naturally in plants, like sugar cane, and we get the white and brown stuff when we process sucrose from those plants.

High-fructose corn syrup isn’t just plain old fructose. While it’s a combination of fructose and glucose, it’s also manufactured from an enzymatic process using glucose syrup from corn. It’s not naturally occurring like sucrose.

Common knowledge has largely centered around the idea that you should avoid high-fructose corn syrup, and accept sucrose as a better sweetener. It’s the lesser of two evils. However, this study suggests that they’re pretty comparably evil.

Why it’s a hack — There are a few key differences between sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup.

Sucrose, which is just regular table sugar, is one fructose molecule paired with one glucose molecule. Both fructose and glucose are monosaccharides, yielding the disaccharide sucrose. Because sucrose is a disaccharide, your liver breaks it down into its separate parts of fructose and glucose.

“Your liver becomes overloaded.”

High-fructose corn syrup molecules aren’t bound together — they’re free fructose and glucose molecules. Depending on whether your liver needs more energy, it can push the glucose into circulation throughout the body or absorb it.

Typically, only about 10 to 15 percent of fructose goes into circulation, and the rest is absorbed and stored in your liver. The enzyme that controls fructose regulation, fructose kinase, is always ready to go, so however much fructose enters your system, fructose kinase is ready to metabolize it. Glucose, on the other hand, can be diverted to be metabolized later.

The real trouble comes when your diet is high in added sugars.

“Your liver becomes overloaded,” Sigala tells Inverse. “Glucose and fructose combined overwork the liver, so the liver is like, ‘What do I do with all of this excess nutrient? I store it as fat.’”

Then the fructose, stored as fat, gets pushed into circulation, which is where we get LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one), triglycerides, and fatty acids.

The body typically lowers high glucose levels with insulin. But excess fat deposits within the liver and in the body disrupt the insulin’s ability to take up glucose. That’s what Sigala means by insulin resistance — your body loses the ability to meaningfully counter all the excess glucose with insulin.

Science in action — Maybe getting to drink soda for two weeks straight sounds like something 14-year-old you would’ve loved. Maybe present-you loves it, too.

In the study, 187 patients drank three daily servings of one of three beverages:

  • a sugar-sweetened beverage
  • a high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverage
  • or an aspartame-sweetened beverage

In order to track changes from each person’s baseline, the participants lived in a clinical environment for a few days prior to beginning the diet change. Their diet and activity levels were controlled and closely monitored both before and after the introduction of the beverages.

Aspartame is what sweetens Diet Coke.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even those who were lean and in a healthy weight range showed changes in liver fat, insulin sensitivity, and circulating lipids when they drank these beverages. Critically, the research team found no significant differences between the effects of sucrose and of high-fructose corn syrup. Both increased risk factors, like insulin sensitivity and fat circulation.

Who didn’t experience changes, however, was the group of participants who drank aspartame-sweetened beverages. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener substance often used in diet sodas. Aspartame, explains Sigala, didn’t cause a significant increase in risk factors in the same way sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup did.

“There were no deleterious effects or increased risk factors for these outcomes at all,” she says.

That doesn’t mean aspartame has zero risks — just none of the same risks associated with sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup in this experiment.

How this affects longevity — General dietary guidelines suggest that sugar should only comprise between 100 and 150 calories of one’s diet. Based on a 2000-calorie diet, about 25 grams of sugar meets that ten percent. One soda, which has between 30 and 40 grams of sugar, blows past this recommendation.

It’s not that sugar itself puts you at higher risk for mortality. It’s that increased consumption of sugar increases our risk for chronic illnesses that in the long run also put you at higher risk for death and poor health.

Sodas like Sprite contain high fructose corn syrup.

Getty Images

But we love our soda and sweet coffees. A place to start is to cut back on how much sugar you consume.

You can also look into drinks with sugar substitutes. Aspartame isn’t without its own risks, such as kidney damage due to long-term use, but if you’re trying to adjust your sugar habits, it’s a good place to start. Many diet sodas and sugar-free syrups are made with aspartame.

“With sugar in general, your risk factors for metabolic diseases — not only diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease — all of those are intertwined with weight gain,” Sigala tells Inverse. “Excess weight gain kind of just exacerbates everything.”

So, when looking for a treat, what should you opt for instead? You might want to pass on a regular soda or PSL, and opt for a diet beverage or flavored sparkling water instead. Your liver will likely thank you.

Hack score out of 10 -- 🍹🍹🍹🍹🍹🍹 (6/10 fruit drinks with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners)

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