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  • Researchers investigated the link between nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and high fructose corn syrup consumption.
  • They found that consuming high amounts of fructose, especially among Mexican Americans who consumed the highest amount, was linked to a higher risk of NAFLD.
  • The researchers conclude that people should avoid consuming foods with high fructose corn syrup content to prevent NAFLD.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when an excess of fat builds up in the liver, which can lead to permanent scarring of the liver, called cirrhosis. Around 24% of adults in the U.S. have the condition.

Risk factors for NAFLD include:

  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High BMI
  • Age
  • Hypertension
  • Waist circumference

Previous research indicates that diets high in sugar from sucrose or high fructose corn syrup increase NAFLD risk.

Other research also suggests that NAFLD prevalence is highest in Hispanics compared to Whites and Blacks.

Exploring high-fructose corn syrup consumption and NAFLD rates could help researchers identify the reasons behind different risk factors among ethnic groups.

Recently, researchers analyzed the link between NAFLD and high-fructose corn syrup consumption among different ethnicities.

They found that higher fructose consumption was linked to higher rates of NAFLD and that Mexican Americans were most affected.

Researchers presented the findings at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruits, fruit juices, certain vegetables, and honey. Fructose is also present in high fructose corn syrup, which is often added to foods such as sodas and candies.

Researchers examined data from 3,292 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2017-2018. Data in their analysis included fructose consumption, demographic factors including ethnicity, and incidence of NAFLD.

Among the participants, 31.3% were in the “moderate” fructose consumption group, and 35.5% were in the high consumption group.

Fructose consumption came from various sources:

  • 29% from baked goods, pasta, and other grains
  • 28% from fruits and items containing fruit
  • 16% from sweeteners, condiments, and sauces
  • 16% from sodas

Altogether, 48% of Mexican Americans and 44% of non-Hispanic Blacks were in the high fructose consumption group compared to 33% of non-Hispanic Whites.

The researchers found that 70% of Mexican Americans in the high fructose consumption group had NAFLD, compared to 52% of Mexican Americans in the low consumption group.

The researchers further found that, among all ethnic groups, those with a higher fructose intake were more likely to have NAFLD.

When asked what might explain the link between high fructose corn syrup consumption and NAFLD, Dr. Theodore Friedman, Ph.D., of Charles R. Drew University in Washington, D.C., the presenting author of the study, told Medical News Today:

“High fructose corn syrup can lead to NAFLD by several mechanisms. It can increase the amount of fat made by the liver. It can also increase inflammation in the liver and can change how the liver metabolizes glucose. It can also increase abdominal fat that can lead to NAFLD.”

Dr. Curtis K. Argo, associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Virginia, who was not involved in the study, said:

“High fructose corn syrup likely sets off a number of inflammatory pathways possibly initiated by changes in the gut microbiome composition and weakening of the integrity of the gut’s intestinal barrier.”

“[This may then permit] microbes and toxins (such as endotoxins) to gain access to portal vein circulation and lead to increased fat deposition and liver inflammation via maladaptive fat droplet metabolism in hepatocytes- the chief functional liver cells- in at-risk patients. [In turn, this may then lead] to NAFLD, and possibly the more harmful version of fatty liver, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH),” he explained.

The researchers concluded that the link between high fructose consumption and NAFLD development partially explains racial and ethnic disparities in NAFLD.

Dr, Rohit Loomba, director of the NAFLD Research Center at the University of California San Diego, who was also not involved in the study, told MNT there are limitations to the study.

Because the findings came from epidemiologic studies, the researchers only found an association and not causal inference, Dr. Loomba explained.

Dr. Argo added: “This study is limited by being based on all noninvasive parameters (rather than liver biopsy, which is the longstanding gold standard) that are imprecise in quantifying liver fat content. Overall, the number of subjects is only a small fraction of the patients who participated in the NHANES studies.”