High fructose diets can damage the immune system

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Excessively high amounts of fructose from sugar, particularly in manufactured sweeteners, can pose a threat to the immune system. Thanyathep Eakphaitoon / Getty Images
  • A new study suggests that eating a diet rich in fructose sugar can cause the immune system to flare up.
  • This process produces more reactive molecules, which are also associated with inflammation.
  • Inflammation can damage cells and tissues and lead to disease.

A new study suggests that a diet high in fructose sugar can prevent the immune system from working properly.

Fructose is a natural sugar that is present in fruits, honey, and certain vegetables, such as asparagus and squash. These types of fructose sugars can contribute to a healthy diet, as fruits and vegetables generally contain less sugar than processed foods sweetened with sugar.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), on the other hand, is a sweetener manufactured from cornstarch. In the latter part of the last century, many manufacturers of processed foods and soft drinks, particularly in the United States, quickly began choosing HFCS to sweeten their products due to its low cost.

Health experts disagree on whether HFCS is more harmful than other sugars.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that it has not seen evidence that foods that contain HFCS are less safe than foods that incorporate other sweeteners. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 also do not exclude HFCS and recommend that people limit all added sugars.

Still, research has consistently shown links between consuming large amounts of HFCS and various conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease.

One problem with HFCS is that it is found in numerous processed foods, including some that people might not expect, like frozen pizza and salad dressing.

A 2019 study found that culturing human dendritic cells, which play a role in the immune system, in fructose led to increased inflammation. However, the researchers did not investigate the metabolic mechanism behind this occurrence.

For the new study, which appears in the journal Communications from natureResearchers from the Swansea University School of Medicine, the University of Bristol and the Francis Crick Institute in London, all in the United Kingdom, examined how human and mouse cells responded to fructose exposure.

Their work indicates that a diet rich in fructose can affect the functioning of the immune system.

The researchers found that fructose causes the immune system to flare up. This process, in turn, produces more reactive molecules, which are associated with inflammation.

Specifically, this sugar adjusts cellular metabolic pathways to promote the production of more reactive inflammatory cytokines.

As the authors point out in their article, “fructose reprograms cellular metabolic pathways to promote glutaminolysis and oxidative metabolism, which are necessary to support increased production of inflammatory cytokines.”

This type of inflammation can damage cells and tissues, contribute to organs and systems malfunction, and lead to disease.

“Our study is exciting because it takes us a step further towards understanding why some diets can cause health problems,” says Dr. Emma Vincent, study author and researcher at Bristol School of Medicine.

The research also sheds light on how fructose might be linked to obesity, as inflammation is often associated with this condition.

Furthermore, the researchers found that fructose leaves cells vulnerable to a “greater metabolic challenge.” This finding suggests that people on high fructose diets may be at greater risk for poor outcomes when fighting infections or dealing with other “metabolically challenging environments.”

In the study, the researchers emphasized that it is especially important to understand the effects of fructose on cell function, since humans have increased their consumption of HFCS around the world.

The researchers are hopeful that their findings will lead to more studies that could help scientists develop treatments for a variety of conditions, including cancer and infectious diseases.

“Investigating different components of our diet can help us understand what might contribute to inflammation and disease and what could be better harnessed to improve health and well-being,” says Dr. Nick Jones, one of the study authors and Swansea immunologist. University School of Medicine.

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