A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) revealed that a steady diet of high fructose corn syrup slows the brain, and impairs memory and learning.
The study also showed how omega-3 fatty acids can counteract the memory and learning disruption caused by elevated levels of high fructose corn syrup. The peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology published the findings in its May 15 edition.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in fish, but can also be found in raspberries, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, romaine lettuce, and collard greens.
“Our findings illustrate that what you eat affects how you think,” said Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of integrative biology and physiology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science.
“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”
Medical X Press notes that earlier research revealed how fructose harms the body through its role in diabetes, obesity and fatty liver, but this study is the first to uncover how the sweetener influences the brain.
High-fructose corn syrup is six times sweeter than cane sugar, and added to processed foods, including soft drinks, condiments, applesauce and baby food. The average American consumes more than 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Professor Gomez-Pinilla, who is also a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and Brain Injury Research Center, explained, “We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants.
“We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”
High fructose corn syrup is made from genetically modified corn that’s treated with a variety of GM enzymes to rearrange the molecular structure of the glucose for conversion to fructose.
An extra metabolic step for fructose molecules is missing in high-fructose corn syrup which is why the excess fructose in high-fructose corn syrup is metabolized to produce fat. Glucose, on the other hand, is processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate called glycogen, in the liver and muscles.
Researchers fed two groups of rats a solution containing high-fructose corn syrup as drinking water for six weeks. One group of rats was supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while the other group was not.
The rats participated in a five-day training session inside a complicated maze. After six weeks on the high-fructose corn syrup, the rats were then placed back in the maze.
“The second group of rats navigated the maze much faster than the rats that did not receive omega-3 fatty acids,” Gomez-Pinilla said.
“The DHA-deprived animals were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.”
The rats who were not fed DHA supplements had also developed signs of resistance to insulin. “Because insulin can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, the hormone may signal neurons to trigger reactions that disrupt learning and cause memory loss,” Gomez-Pinilla said.
Too much fructose could interfere with insulin’s ability to regulate how cells use and store sugar, necessary for brain function. “Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning,” Gomez-Pinilla said.
“Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new.”
Professor Gomez-Pinilla advises people to restrict high-fructose corn syrup intake to a minimum and eat fresh berries and Greek yogurt instead. An occasional bar of dark chocolate that hasn’t been processed with a lot of extra sweetener is fine too, he said.
“Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose’s harmful effects,” said Gomez-Pinilla. “It’s like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases.”