Nutrition Articles

3 Bittersweet Truths about Sweeteners

What the Research Really Says About High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Honey, and Aspartame

High-Fructose Corn Syrup is Worse for You Than Sugar: Weak Evidence
Whatever you think of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), you have to feel at least a little sympathy for the hapless souls assigned the task of boosting the sweetener's rotten image. When they conducted a $30 million advertising campaign intended to allay fears about the product's safety, the main result was a slew of parodies that mercilessly mocked the ads' message.

For example, in one real commercial, a woman questions a fellow mom for serving kids an HFCS- sweetened beverage. Confidently explaining that the product is "natural" and "fine in moderation," the HFCS user puts the accuser in her place and leaves her speechless. A series of YouTube spoofs shows two women engaged in a virtually identical conversation, except that the woman being questioned (played by a guy in drag) is defending lead-containing products from China, female genital mutilation, and KKK cross burnings.
You definitely have a PR problem when your product is likened to such things.
Food manufacturers, which use HFCS in everything from cereals to soda, like the sweetener because it's cheaper than sugar and prolongs the shelf life of products. But many people regard it as a sinister chemical concoction that's causing obesity along with diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.

Indeed, lab experiments have found that rodents fed HFCS gained more weight than those receiving table sugar. The rats also showed signs of so-called metabolic syndrome—a combination of several risk factors, such as belly fat and increased blood pressure— which has been linked to heart disease and diabetes. But there's little evidence from human studies that HFCS is any worse for our waistlines or our health than table sugar (also known as sucrose). The fact that HFCS and table sugar have a very similar chemical makeup also casts doubt on the claims. Both contain the sugars fructose (the type in fruit) and glucose in roughly equal proportions. Moreover, HFCS has the same number of calories as table sugar.

One difference is that the fructose and glucose are chemically bonded in table sugar but not in HFCS. Some argue that as a result, our bodies metabolize table sugar and HFCS differently. At this point, however, it's just a theory with no hard proof. We do have evidence that the body processes pure fructose differently than glucose. Broken down in the liver, fructose is more likely than glucose to result in the production of harmful fats. There are also hints that large amounts of fructose may make the body resistant to insulin. Whether the cumulative amount we get from HFCS actually causes harm is unknown.

The fact that HFCS is processed (and not "natural," as those industry ads have claimed) doesn't necessarily render it a health risk, as some maintain. But even though the science to date hasn't proven HFCS to be uniquely villainous, the product isn't totally benign either. Like table sugar, it's a source of empty calories, and consuming too much sugar— in whatever form— can lead to obesity and related health problems.

In another effort to improve their product's image, the producers of HFCS are pushing to officially rename it "corn sugar." Getting a new identity has certainly worked for other foods, including canola oil (formerly rapeseed oil) and orange roughy (slimehead). I just wish Chinese restaurants could find a more appetizing name for the poo- poo platter.
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About The Author

Robert J. Davis Robert J. Davis
Robert J. Davis, PhD, is an award-winning health journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, PBS, WebMD, and in the Wall Street Journal. He is founder and editor-in-chief of and the author of "Coffee Is Good for You" and "The Healthy Skeptic". He also teaches at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health.

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