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Are we unfairly blaming fructose for the obesity epidemic?

That’s what researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital suggested in the Annals of Internal Medicine when they reviewed over 40 published fructose studies.

In 31 of these studies, people ate the same number of calories as either pure fructose or non-fructose sugar. The fructose group did not gain any more weight than the non-fructose group in these studies.

In the remaining studies, one group ate their normal diet while the other group added fructose to their diet. As you might guess, the fructose group (those who ate the extra calories) gained weight.

Keep in mind that none of these studies looked at high-fructose corn syrup, which is about 55 percent fructose. Participants in every one of these studies, rather, consumed pure fructose baked into food or sprinkled on cereals and beverages.

Reality check. You rarely eat fructose alone. Table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, for instance, are a combination of fructose and glucose. Even fruit, which is higher in fructose, contains some glucose.

In other words, these studies weren’t an accurate measure of how you actually consume fructose.

The study’s lead author, Dr. John Sievenpiper, admitted most of the studies they examined were small, poor quality, and happened over too short a time period to be significant. I’ll sum it up: these studies were practically useless, and Dr. Sievenpiper’s meta-analysis proved nothing.

That didn’t stop the media, however, from picking up this story and suggesting that perhaps we’ve been wrong all along in putting fructose on trial.

Fructose apologists were also quick to defend this study. “This study lends some further support to the view that weight gain is not caused by any one particular component of the diet, and that fructose… is safe at normal dietary levels,” said cardiologist Dr. James Rippe, a consultant for the Corn Refiners Association, which represents high-fructose corn syrup. “Obesity is the result of consuming too many calories from all sources, without compensating exercise.”

Indeed, you might conveniently conclude that a calorie is a calorie, and that if you eat too many calories, you gain weight, period. So stop picking on fructose or high-fructose corn syrup or whatever food the press vilifies.

And, after all, an apple contains about 15 grams of fructose, so how bad could it really be?

Here’s the deal with fructose. Yes, it’s sometimes innocuously labeled as fruit sugar. But fructose in an apple comes packaged with fiber and nutrients. Your body recognizes an apple because it’s real food, not chemically processed barcoded crap loaded with high-fructose corn syrup.

Your liver can efficiently process a tiny amount of fructose, but beyond a certain point it does a lousy job breaking it down.

For a while, experts recommended fructose for diabetics since it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels like glucose. But we eventually discovered what fructose does do is just as bad if not worse.

For one, fructose contributes to uric acid build-up, triggering cardiovascular disease. Fructose also raises triglycerides, which your body stores as fat. And because your liver poorly metabolizes it, fructose can create fatty liver disease. Fructose also decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight people. And if all that isn’t bad enough, cancer cells thrive on fructose.

Listen, pinning the obesity epidemic on one culprit is much easier than acknowledging the complex, multi-factorial problem it really is. High-fructose corn syrup is certainly a key player, but a combination of diet and lifestyle issues make people fat.

Ultimately, the debate about whether high-fructose corn syrup is equivalent to sugar means choosing the lesser of two evils and completely misses the point that both are unhealthy and absolutely unnecessary in our diet.

Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS

Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, (aka "The Rogue Nutritionist") is a nationally known expert on weight loss, nutrition and health. He is a board-certified nutritionist with a master’s degree in psychology and the author of nine books on health, healing, food and longevity including two best-sellers, “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” and “Living Low Carb”. A frequent guest on television and radio, he has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS as an expert on nutrition, weight loss, and longevity. He is a past member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Men’s Health magazine, is the Nutrition Editor for Pilates Style, and is a regular contributor to AOL, Vanity Fair Online, Clean Eating Magazine, Better Nutrition, and Total Health Magazine Online.