Stories tagged sugar

"Apparently melted" sugar
"Apparently melted" sugarCourtesy Delphine Ménard

Just because everyone knows it's true, doesn't make it so. For centuries, candy makers have wrung their hands over the vagaries of sugar. See, sugar doesn't always melt at the same temperature. Turns out, that's because it's not really melting. It's decomposing.

Check out the article
for more information.

"We saw different results depending on how quickly we heated the sucrose. That led us to believe that molecules were beginning to break down as part of a kinetic process," said Shelly J. Schmidt, a University of Illinois professor of food chemistry.

Schmidt said a true or thermodynamic melting material, which melts at a consistent, repeatable temperature, retains its chemical identity when transitioning from the solid to the liquid state. She and Lee used high-performance liquid chromatography to see if sucrose was sucrose both before and after "melting." It wasn't.

"As soon as we detected melting, decomposition components of sucrose started showing up," she said.

To distinguish "melting" caused by decomposition from thermodynamic melting, the researchers have coined a new name—"apparent melting." Schmidt and her colleagues have shown that glucose and fructose are also apparent melting materials."


Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.
Are you into the white stuff? Or are you a corn man?: Don't answer that.Courtesy Andrew_B
About a month ago I fell off my bicycle and got a brain injury. Can you imagine? The doctor called it a “corncussion.” I was thinking I would do a Science Buzz post on corncussions, but I couldn’t find any information on the condition. What gives, Google? Did I invent the corncussion? I don’t think so.

What I did find, however, was also pretty interesting: this new research on corn syrup.

Don’t run off! Corn syrup is interesting! And it’s relevant! On my desk, for instance, I see three food-related items: a half-full pack of m&m’s, a Tootsie Roll Pop wrapper, and an apple. Of these items, only the apple doesn’t have any “high-fructose corn syrup” in it. High fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for lots and lots of food in this country (check your kitchen), and it has been for decades. It’s cheap, it’s really sweet, and it’s made from corn (we like making things from corn in these parts), so what’s not to like?

Lots of things, according to some people, and nothing, according to other people. The problem is that the above disagreement usually goes something like this when it is discussed:

“Corn syrup is horrible! Why? Because, like, it’s not like regular sugar, and your body doesn’t… your body treats it, like… it’s different and bad! Chemistry! Biology!”
“Corn syrup isn’t bad, it’s awesome! It’s made from corn, and corn is natural, and when has anything natural been bad for you?”

And both sides, frankly, are pretty dumb. Because in the former’s case, people usually aren’t really saying anything. What you sort of heard from a friend who might have read something about how the body treats corn syrup differently or something doesn’t count as solid scientific backing for your position. Be honest—it’s just your way of saying that you shop at Whole Foods.

On the other hand, it’s not like we’re sprinkling kernels of fresh corn on our food when we’re using high-fructose corn syrup—lots of fancy refining goes into making that sweetener, which may or may not be a good thing. And, in any case, being “natural” doesn’t make something healthy. You know what else is natural? Syphilis, arsenic, and getting punched in the face.

The thing is, there seems to be an association between the rise in obesity rates (and related diseases) and the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup (let’s call it “HFCS” from here on) to American diets about 40 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that there really is a link between the two—we don’t know exactly how HFCS would cause obesity, and we don’t know if it was for sure HFCS that made us all fatter, or if it was some other widespread lifestyle change. Or if it was a combination of things.

The issue is complicated by stuff like research that indicates that drinking too much pop can raise your risk of cancer. Is that because too much of a sweet drink is bad for you? Or is it because lots of soft drinks use HFCS as their sweetener?

It’s confusing, and we’ve never really been able to definitively say, “HFCS is/is not bad for you.”

And we still can’t.

However, yesterday I read an interesting article about a study that seems to reinforce the connection between HFCS and obesity, even if it doesn’t show a causal relationship. (That is, it seems to show that something really is happening, but it can’t say why.)

Researchers at Princeton studied two groups of rats. One group got regular rat-chow, and water sweetened with HFCS. The other group got the same amount of rat-chow, and water sweetened with regular sugar from sugar cane or beets (this sugar is called sucrose). All the rats consumed the same amount of calories each day, no matter what their beverage was.

The researchers found that some of the rats eating regular sugar gained weight, and that some of them gained no weight. However, all of the rats eating HFCS gained weight (from body fat), and showed an increase in blood fats called “triglycerides.” The researchers pointed out that even rats given a high-fat diet don’t show such consistent weight gain.

The next part of their experiment tracked the long-term effects of a high HFCS diet on the rats. These rats all showed signs of a condition known (in humans) as metabolic syndrome. They had lots of blood fat, and gained lots of weight, especially around the belly. In fact, they gained 48% more weight than rats eating a normal diet.

What about that?

Well, the Corn Refiners Association has something to say about it: They think it was a misleading study. In their response to the research the CFA points out that there was no regular sugar control for the second part of the study—HFCS-eating rats were only compared to rat-chow-eating rats, not to rats eating regular sugar. So it would be like comparing weight gain between someone who just ate candy bars, and someone who just ate granola, instead of between a candy bar-eater and an ice-cream eater. (Does that sentence make any sense?) I don’t know if the original study really did lack that control, or if there was a reason they felt it wasn’t necessary. The CFA calls it a “gross error,” but it could be that it was just outside the intended scope of the research.

The CFA also thinks that the portions of HFCS given to the rats constitute a “gross error.” According to them, a proportional amount given to a human would be about 3000 calories from HFCS a day. They point out that adults eat only 2000 calories a day, from a variety of sources. It’s a good point, but not a great one, I think. That 2000 calorie figure is based on the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended diet (you know, the label you see on the back of everything you eat), and how many people stick exactly to the recommended diet? A 3000-calorie/day diet would definitely not be out of the question for lots and lots of people. And, sure, those calories are supposed to come from many food sources, but, again, go check your kitchen, and see how many items in there us HFCS. (Lots do.)

Keep in mind, though, that just because the people that make HFCS are arguing that it’s safe doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not safe. Of course they want to defend their product. Not everything is a global corporate conspiracy.

But the Princeton study sure does make it look like there’s something about HFCS that causes it to contribute to obesity more than regular sugar. The study just doesn’t show how it might do that. That’s the causal relationship we talked about earlier. They have some ideas, though.

The CFA claims that “a sugar is a sugar, whether it comes from cane, corn or beets. Both sugar and HFCS are handled the same way by the body. Maybe, but sugar and HFCS aren’t totally identical. Both sweeteners are made up of two kinds of sugar molecules, called glucose and fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS, on the other hand, has more fructose (about 55%), less glucose (about 42%), and a small amount of larger sugar molecules called saccharides (3%). The way these molecules are put together in the difference sweeteners differs too: in regular sugar, each fructose molecule is bound to a glucose molecule, but the process of making HFCS causes its fructose molecules to all be “free and unbound.”

Some scientists think that because the fructose in HFCS is free, it is more easily metabolized (used by your body) and is more quickly turned into fat. The extra step needed to separate the fructose from the glucose in regular sugar might cause it to be metabolized differently, with more of it being stored in the liver or muscles as carbohydrates.

But, once more, that part is what people are uncertain about.

It’s a tricky issue, because there are a lot of dogs in the fight—I’m sure the manufacturers of regular sugar are just as defensive about their product (and just as likely to be very selective about which studies the promote) as the corn refiners are. But what about us poor norms? All we want is to sit and eat sweet things all day, while gaining as little weight as possible. I mean, we could just consume sweeteners in moderation until science proves who’s really right, but… where’s the fun in that?

It’s something to consider. Choose wisely, and stuff.


Well, well. It’s happened again.

Members of the so-called “scientific community” have molted from their crusty pupae and emerged as the wriggling little thieves and plagiarists I’ve always known them to be.
I’m sure this sounds a little bit harsh, and it is, but deservedly so, for the crime committed is most egregious. Let me explain, and I think you will agree…
The solution to all transportation fuel problems.: This man somehow got into my head and stole my idea. Possibly metaphorically.      (photo by Richard Faverty, permission for use granted by Bob Arno)
The solution to all transportation fuel problems.: This man somehow got into my head and stole my idea. Possibly metaphorically. (photo by Richard Faverty, permission for use granted by Bob Arno)

A team based out of the University if Wisconsin-Madison has recently announced its “discovery” of a two-stage process for turning the sugar fructose into “a liquid transportation fuel with 40 percent greater energy density than ethanol.” The first set of quotation marks here are for irony, the next are meant to give credit where credit is due, something often overlooked among certain scientists.

We are all aware of the increasing focus being placed on renewable fuels, especially those for transportation. Ethanol is currently the only one being produced on a very large scale, and it is not without problems. Ethanol contains relatively little energy compared to fossil fuels, it evaporates quickly, and it readily absorbs water from the atmosphere, which must be separated from the fuel through an energy intensive process before it can be used.

DMF, the fructose-derived fuel, is not water-soluble, it is stable in storage, and it costs less energy to produce. The article I read also seems to suggest that DMF is carbon-neutral (that us to say, it doesn’t contribute to the global warming CO2 in the atmosphere), but I’m not sure that this is accurate.

DMF itself is not new, but the process developed at UW is. Using acid and copper catalysts, and salt and butanol as a solvent, the new process is much more effective at deriving the DMF than previous methods, adding to its potential as a commercial fuel.

This all sounds great to you, I’m sure, but I think we should get back to the real meat of this story: shameless thievery.

Every night I dream about falling asleep on a silk bed that floats in a pool of some kind of liquid gold (not real liquid gold, though, because that would probably burn the bed). The means of achieving this dream I have always kept secret, until now, when it seems there is no more point to it: converting simple sugars to pure energy. My novel method is only slightly different than that of the UW “scientists.” Using seven and eight-year catalysts, and five and six-year-old solvents, I could solve the world’s transportation problems.

The children - with the consent of their parents, of course - would be given fructose rich fruit-flavored drinks, or bowls of pure sugar (also fructose rich), and then harnessed to cars. Cars with empty gas tanks! The fired-up kids would tow the vehicles! Current production model cars could use the new technology with only minor adjustments (although larger vehicles would require a greater child-power rating to reach optimal speeds – somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 mph). The control interface would be entirely voice activated – I’m thinking something like “If you don’t get me to the mall by the time I count to three, you will be in so much trouble, JGordon! One… Two… Two and a half…” And you’re off!

It could have been win-win-win! The kids would have gotten the sugar they want so badly (as well as healthy exercise), drivers would have had plenty of fun, and I would have been rich, rich as Reagan. But no. My genius idea has been stolen, stolen and perverted to the point where I want nothing more to do with it. Oh well.

A side thought – as I understand it, one of the problems with ethanol can be growing plants that efficiently produce carbohydrates. Corn, obviously, is the main candidate around here, but I guess sugar cane is one of the best things to use (Brazil makes tons of ethanol, and they use sugar cane). These crops, however, can be pretty rough on the land, and the various steps in farming and harvesting can create a fair amount of pollution. I wonder if producing the fructose needed for DMF could be similarly problematic.

There are some issues here that aren’t generally what we think about in association with fuel production. Anyone know more about this?

DMF – More or less my idea.

Just some stuff on Brazil’s alternative fuel industry.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recently drew a correlation between drinking excess amounts of soda or sugary drinks and weight gain. Researchers stated an extra soda or sugary drink a day can pile on fifteen extra pounds in a year.

I just discovered a cool traveling science museum exhibit all about my favorite subject, CANDY! I haven't seen Candy Unwrapped but the descriptions make it look pretty cool I just hope it might ooze its sugary sweet trail near the upper midwest sometime soon.


Rufous Hummingbird: Courtesy National Park Service

Researchers working in the Canadian Rockies have reported Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) exhibiting some interesting characteristics. T. Andrew Hurly, University of Lethbridge in Alberta, suggests Rufous Hummingbirds have an episodic memory recalling flower location as well as determining when nectar supplies will be replenished. Episodic memory is the ability to associate where and when events will reoccur, such as a flower’s nectar replenishment.

How did Hurly and colleagues test the hummingbirds? As described in the March 7th edition of Current Biology, the researchers specifically tracked Rufous Hummingbirds in their native mountainous habitat. They investigated the hummingbirds by constructing artificial flowers made from syringe tips surrounded by cardboard discs. Artificial flowers were placed in the hummingbird’s natural habitat and restocked with a sugar solution in timed intervals. Half the syringes were filled ten minutes after the male hummingbird drank and the other half were refilled after twenty minutes. Researchers observed the hummingbirds visited appropriate flowers corresponding with time intervals-ten minutes for quickly refilled flowers and twenty minutes for the slower refills.