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Duke Medicine: High fructose corn syrup and kids

A new study links high fructose corn syrup with liver scarring. The study's lead researcher says there are plenty of implications for kids.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

It's hard to find a pantry without high fructose corn syrup. It's in cereals, salad dressings, baked goods, fruit juices, crackers and even baby formula.

And many of us grew up on it, sucking down the sweetener in pitchers of sweetened juice and eating it every morning in our breakfast cereal.

"We're the Kool-Aid generation," said Alexandra Weeks, the 26-year-old mom of two in Holly Springs.

The sweetener has been linked to obesity and diabetes. Now researchers at Duke Medicine say it may not be good for the liver as well. You may have heard about the study last week on WRAL-TV. Read the story and watch the video by clicking here.

The study looked at 427 patients who, like Weeks, have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It's a condition where fat is found in the liver and can lead to cirrosis that's not caused by drinking too much alcohol. As part of the study, researchers took liver biopsies from the patients and asked them about their diet to see if there was a connection with sweetened drinks.

Dr. Manal Abdelmalek, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology/Hepatology at Duke University Medical Center, and her team of researchers, found a link.

The researchers found only 19 percent of adults with the liver disease reported no intake of fructose-containing beverages, while 52 percent consumed between one and six servings a week and 29 percent consumed fructose-containing beverages on a daily basis.

The study evaluated any beverage with fructose (and 100 percent fruit juices contain fructose). But Abdelmalek told me that more than 90 percent of all the beverages contained high fructose corn syrup.

"This raises concerns about if we're seeing this in adults, what are the implications on our adolescents," Abdelmalek told me. "I think the implication of our results as they apply to children and adolescents is very real."

Doctors are seeing more and more children being diagnosed with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which was identified only about 20 years near the beginning of the obesity epidemic, she said. And there even have been rare reports of cirrrosis found in kids. 

Abdelmalek said that about 20 percent of kids consume more than 25 percent of their calories in the form of fructose. It was only 4 percent in the 19th century and that was mostly from fresh fruit and vegetable.

Doctors have told Weeks that she may need a liver transplant by the time she's 50. She is otherwise healthy and a normal weight. She's worked to cut high fructose corn syrup from her diet and her families' since finding out the diagnosis.

"If you look in your pantry, there is high fructose corn syrup in almost every box - pasta, crakers. It's in everything, not just sodas," Weeks said. "So we would have the occasional soda maybe once a month. You try to limit those things. But with the result of this survey, it makes you not even want to do those things."

Abdelmalek said the findings help doctors better advise their patients on what they should cut out of their diet to stay healthy. She also plans to work very quickly on a similar study looking at children and the impact of fructose-containing beverages on them.

"The concern of course is our adolescents are probably drinking far more fructose containing beverages. Far more colas, far more sodas, far more Gatorades and Kool-Aid Jammers, all of which contain refined sugars, " she said. "The bottom line is it's too much carbohydrates, too much sugar."

Go to dukehealth.org to learn more about the study.


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