Fructose has long been on the short list for execution by nutritionists, dietitians and physicians alike. The sugar compound, found most frequently in the American diet as high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, has been linked to various problems ranging from obesity and diabetes to liver and heart disease. Doctors often refer to HFCS as an “industrial food product” so far removed from cane sugar or other common forms of sugar that it is only linked to them in that it derived from a carbohydrate base -in this case, corn- to start. HFCS is so highly processed that the human body doesn’t recognize it as food; breaking it down for excretion has to be handled by the liver.
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It is, however, widely available and incredibly cheap, much cheaper than cane sugar. So while study after study shows that it could affect your health in all sorts of adverse ways, it continues to be added to thousands of processed food products in place of cane sugar. And now we can add another potential problem to the list: fructose itself may damage genes in the brain.
More incredibly, a compound called DHA -which occurs naturally in brain cells, though not in high enough quantities to fight damage or diseases- appears to reverse damage caused by fructose. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid found in some foods and omega-3 supplements. (DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid: now you know why they use the abbreviation.)
In a new study conducted at UCLA, researchers trained rats to escape a maze. Then they divided them into 3 groups: rats given water with fructose and a DHA rich diet, rats given water with fructose and no DHA enrichment, and rats given plain water and no DHA. Six weeks later, the rats were put into the maze again. The rats who were given the fructose water with no DHA enrichment took twice as long to navigate the maze as did the rats who were given plain water. The rats who were given the fructose water and DHA also performed as fast as the rats given plain water, suggesting that the introduction of DHA actually served to counteract the damage done by the fructose.
The rats given fructose water also tested with extremely high blood sugar, triglycerides and insulin levels, which all correspond to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in humans.
Perhaps most importantly, when researchers sequenced over 20,000 of the genes in the rats’ brains, they found over 900 of them to be damaged by fructose. The vast majority of these are comparable to human genes, and they correspond to regulators or metabolism, inflammation and cell communication. Some of the many diseases that could potentially be affected by the damage done to these genes are Parkinson’s, depression and bipolar disorder.
On the up side, the addition of DHA seems to not only repair the damage done, it sets the stage for repairs along the whole gene pattern. “DHA changes not just one or two genes; it seems to push the entire gene pattern back to normal, which is remarkable,” said Xia Yang, a senior author of the study and a UCLA assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology.
DHA is abundant in wild salmon -though not farmed salmon- as well as other fish and fish oils, walnuts, flaxseeds, and fruits and vegetables. (Not surprisingly, it’s readily available in foods that are unprocessed.) While it’s still a little early to state conclusively that the research correlates specifically to humans, the science looks pretty optimistic. DHA could be the magic bullet to undo all of our fructose-related woes.