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What’s The Deal With High Fructose Corn Syrup?

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High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been slammed in the news a lot recently – with studies tying HFCS to obesity, diabetes, among other chronic health conditions. The media and other health organizations are urging consumers to stay away from HFCS, and are asking food manufacturers to remove it from their products.

As a response, the Corn Refiners Association launched a campaign comparing HFCS to table sugar, disputing the claims that HFCS is unhealthy, and advocating for a change in the sugar’s name to “corn sugar.” The Corn Refiners Association has made statements that claim HFCS is “made from corn,” “is natural,” “has the same calories as sugar or honey,” “is nutritionally the same as sugar,” and “is fine in moderation.”

So, what exactly is HFCS? How is it made? And contrary to what the Corn Refiners Association claims, is it really bad for you?

To start, HFCS is basically corn syrup (glucose) that is treated with enzymes to convert it to fructose. Its then blended with pure corn syrup to produce a substance that’s 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Table sugar has a 50-50 fructose-glucose ratio, but the difference is that in HFCS – the fructose-glucose bonds are artificially generated, making them more chemically unstable. So while it is made from corn, I don’t think you could make the claim that it’s “all natural” – since it is a chemically treated, processed, man-made product.

Does HFCS have the same calories as sugar or honey? Yes (both have 4 calories per gram). Is it fine in moderation? Maybe. There have been studies that show that the while glucose is metabolized in every cell in the body, fructose is broken down only in the liver – lowering the levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol and raising the levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. And yet, the Corn Refiners Association has studies that show that HFCS is broken down in the body the same way regular sugar is.

Additionally, because the price of corn is kept low through government subsidies, HFCS is a much cheaper sweetener than regular cane sugar. HFCS also acts as a shelf stabilizer – extending the life of packaged goods. Because of these two factors, HFCS can be found in everything – it is in: yogurt, bread, crackers, canned fruit, ketchup, spaghetti sauce, most packaged desserts, cereal, soda, juices, fast food, ice cream, oatmeal, waffles, chocolate, granola bars, salad dressings – the list goes on and on.

The problem here is that this added sweetness from HFCS is found in products one wouldn’t even expect to be sweet (bread and crackers, for example). This ends up making the “consumption in moderation” guideline nearly impossible – because there is hidden HFCS everywhere.

So that brings us back to the original question: is HFCS bad for you? My short answer would be – yes. For two reasons: 1) It is a processed, chemically modified ingredient and 2) It is hidden in so many foods that even if you try to avoid eating desserts, you could still be getting a ton of sugar from the HFCS in bread, granola bars, etc. While it may be the same as sugar in terms of calories, you’d never consciously add a couple of teaspoons of sugar on top of a turkey sandwich would you? Eating packaged foods that contain HFCS is akin to doing so.

The good news is, many companies are moving away from using HFCS in their products, so you can find good packaged food options that don’t have any added sugars in them. Just remember to read the label and look at the nutritional information – bread with 10g of sugar likely has either added sugar or HFCS, which you should stay away from.

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About The Picky Eater

  • John Weaver MD

    Dear Picky Eater
    As you know the grains (rice etc) digest down to molecules (mostly the sugar molecule called glucose). HFC and cane sugar digests into fructose and glucose molecules. Dietary fructose is not needed by humans and was not a problem until a hundred years ago when we started eating more than 15 grams per day. The public is becoming aware of how adverse fructose is. {personal contact info deleted]

  • KC RD

    It’s important to recognize there is little evidence that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sugar (sucrose) have differing effects on satiety, energy balance, hormones or metabolites such as triglycerides. As a registered dietitian and consultant to the food and beverage industry, I keep up-to-date on the science regarding this topic. The truth is, HFCS and sucrose are similar and one is neither better nor worse than the other. Confusion surrounding HFCS has been in part by links to research testing high levels of pure fructose, and then generalizing those findings to HFCS; but HFCS is not the same as fructose. Therefore, it is not reasonable to base dietary recommendations on selecting or avoiding specific types of sweeteners. Further, the Journal of Nutrition encourages the scientific community and general public to stop demonizing HFCS as the culprit of obesity in America and to reexamine myths about the impact of HFCS on the diet. Bottom line: All foods and beverages can be enjoyed as a part of a healthy lifestyle, even soda, as long as it’s balanced with physical activity and a wholesome diet.