The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

Is there something unique about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that could lead to weight gain or health problems? Does your body really know the difference between corn syrup, sugar and other sweeteners? That may depend on who you ask. Some people think it's different and prefer to avoid it. Others say that it's no different than other sugars, but we should be limiting our intake of all sugars anyway. So either way, most people think it's good to cut back on all sweeteners, regardless of type.

I once believed that HFCS was different, and therefore a key player in the obesity crisis. But after reviewing the published, peer-reviewed scientific research on HFCS, today my view is different. Read on to find out whether high fructose corn syrup deserves its bad rap and how it really compares with regular sugar.

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a calorie-providing sweetener used to sweeten foods and beverages, particularly processed and store-bought foods. It is made by an enzymatic process from glucose syrup that is derived from corn. A relatively new food ingredient, it was first produced in Japan in the late 1960s, then entered the American food supply system in the early 1970s. HFCS is a desirable food ingredient for food manufacturers because it is equally as sweet as table sugar, blends well with other foods, helps foods to maintain a longer shelf life, and is less expensive (due to government subsidies on corn) than other sweeteners. It can be found in a variety of food products including soft drinks, salad dressings, ketchup, jams, sauces, ice cream and even bread.

There are two types of high fructose corn syrup found in foods today:
  • HFCS-55 (the main form used in soft drinks) contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
  • HFCS-42 (the main form used in canned fruit in syrup, ice cream, desserts, and baked goods) contains 42% fructose and 58% glucose.
Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup
Table sugar (also called sucrose) and HFCS both consist of two simple sugars: fructose and glucose. The proportion of fructose and glucose in HFCS is basically the same ratio as table sugar, which is made of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 calories per gram).

But the fructose and glucose in table sugar are chemically bonded together, and the body must first digest sugar to break these bonds before the body can absorb the fructose and glucose into the bloodstream. In contrast, the fructose and glucose found in HFCS are merely blended together, which means it doesn't need to be digested before it is metabolized and absorbed into the bloodstream. Because of this, theories abound that HFCS has a greater impact on blood glucose levels than regular sugar (sucrose). However, research has shown that there are no significant differences between HFCS and sugar (sucrose) when it comes to the production of insulin, leptin (a hormone that regulates body weight and metabolism), ghrelin (the "hunger" hormone), or the changes in blood glucose levels. In addition, satiety studies done on HFCS and sugar (sucrose) have found no difference in appetite regulation, feelings of fullness, or short-term energy intake. How can that be?

Well, the body digests table sugar very rapidly, too. And both HFCS and table sugar (sucrose) enter the bloodstream as glucose and fructose—the metabolism of which is identical. There is no significant difference in the overall rate of absorption between table sugar and HFCS, which explains why these two sweeteners have virtually the same effects on the body.

HFCS and Obesity
HFCS hit the food industry in the late 1970s, right when the waistlines of many Americans began to expand. During this time, many diet and activity factors where changing in society. It is a well-researched fact that the current obesity crisis is very much a multi-faceted problem. The American Medical Association (AMA) has extensively examined the available research on HFCS and obesity. This organization has publicly stated that, to date, there is nothing unique about HFCS that causes obesity. It does not appear to contribute more to obesity than any other type of caloric sweetener. However, the AMA does encourage more research on this topic.

But Is It Natural?
High fructose corn syrup has received a lot of blame and bad press lately. Recent marketing campaigns funded by the Corn Refiners Association have tried to improve the reputation of high fructose corn syrup, calling it "natural" among other things. However, it's important to note that the word “natural” doesn't mean much. This common food-labeling term is NOT regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Let’s face it: Neither table sugar nor HFCS would exist without human interaction and processing. You cannot just go to a field and squeeze corn syrup out of corn or sugar out of sugar beets or sugarcane. "Natural" or not, too much sweet stuff can't be good for you—even if it comes from what you might think of as natural sweeteners like honey, agave syrup (which is also highly refined and actually higher in fructose than HFCS) or raw sugar.

What about Fructose?
Much of the research cited to demonize HFCS is done specifically on fructose. But as we've already learned, fructose is just one component of HFCS, and it is found in table sugar and other sweeteners, too. Fructose also occurs naturally in fresh, whole fruits. So when a study comes out saying that increased "fructose" consumption leads to health problems, weight gain, cancer or other problems, that doesn't mean that those findings can be applied specifically to HFCS—or to any other fructose-containing food or sweetener. Put simply, what happens in a lab or in animal tests cannot be applied to humans, and definitely doesn't imply you'd have the same outcome (weight gain, cancer, etc.) by consuming other foods or sweeteners of which fructose is a component.

There is some emerging research showing that high intakes of fructose can lead to a host of health problems. But who consumes that much pure fructose—and all by itself? Does this mean we should avoid fruit? Honey? All things that contain any amount of fructose? Clearly more research needs to be done in this area, but the bottom line remains: We should all be eating fewer sweets, regardless of the source of sweetness.

It's important that we be wise consumers of health information and read studies like this critically, asking important questions, and making sure not to apply a small lab study to other real-world scenarios that might not fit. For more information on being a savvy reader of nutrition research, click here .

Spark Action: What This Means for You
For years, SparkPeople's position (and my position as a registered dietitian) has always been that we are eating too much of the sweet stuff, no matter what the source. When it's added to your morning coffee, hidden in your can of soda, or baked into your chocolate brownie, sweetened foods are everywhere. The typical American over the age of two consumes more than 300 calories daily from sugar and other caloric sweeteners (including HFCS). That's 19 teaspoons of sweetener (75 grams) a day! One-sixth of our calorie intake is coming from a food ingredient that provides absolutely no nutritional benefit! This is definitely affecting our weight and overall health. It is time to take charge and cut back! The most recent recommendations suggest:
  • Healthy adults who consume approximately 2,000 calories daily should limit the amount of all caloric sweeteners to no more than 32 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar daily.
  • For SparkPeople members who are consuming approximately 1,200-1,500 calories daily, this would equate to about 19-24 grams (5-6 teaspoons) of sugar each day.
Please note that doesn't only apply to sugar that you to your morning coffee or oatmeal; it applies to all "hidden" sugars, too, which are found in other processed foods and drinks that you may purchase.

To help curb the sugar monster so you can keep your weight and health in check, follow these tips.
  • Always read the ingredients list. Foods you might not even realize are sweetened (like bread, dried fruit and crackers) might be hiding added sugars. Learn to identify terms that mean added sugars on the ingredients list, including sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, crystallized fructose, dextrin, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, corn sweeteners, evaporated cane juice, glucose-fructose, granulated fructose, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, malt, molasses, and turbinado sugar. Try to limit foods that have any of these “sugars” as one of the first three ingredients.
  • If you take your coffee with sugar, try adding a small piece of cinnamon stick or vanilla bean to your cup. It adds flavor without adding caloric sweeteners.
  • When baking, reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. Most of the time you can reduce the sugar by up to one-third without noticing a difference in the taste or texture of the final product. Now that's sweet!
  • Sweeten other food items with vanilla extract or other "sweet" spices instead of caloric sweeteners. Many times cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice can naturally sweeten a recipe.
  • Substitute homemade fruit purees for sugar and syrups in recipes. Applesauce (look for varieties made without added sugar) can be substituted for some of the sugar in muffins, breads and baked desserts.
  • Top your breakfast waffles or pancakes with fresh fruit compote instead of syrup.
  • Limit the amount of regular soda and caloric-sweetened beverages. While artificially sweetened "diet" beverages aren't exactly health foods, they are one way to cut calories. The healthiest choice is always water. To add a splash of flavor to your water, add lemon or lime juice, other types of 100% fruit juice, or pieces of frozen fruit.
  • Skip the calorie-sweetened yogurts that use sugar, honey, syrup, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, sugar and HFCS. Buy plain, natural yogurt and sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit, frozen fruit or fruit canned in its own juice.
  • Select breakfast cereals with 5 grams of sugar or fewer per serving. Add sweetness with fresh, frozen, or fruit canned in its own juice. Try sliced bananas, canned peaches, frozen blueberries, or fresh strawberries.
  • If you're a juice drinker, buy 100% fruit juices and limit it to 1 cup daily for adults and ½ cup daily for children. Beware of juice "drinks," fruit punches, and juice cocktails; these contain only a small amount of juice and the rest is water and added caloric sweeteners.
Selected Sources:
American Dietetic Association. Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2004. 104:255-275.

American Medical Association. Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health. The health effects of high fructose syrup. July 23, 2009.

American Medical Association. AMA finds high fructose syrup unlikely to be more harmful to health than other calorie sweeteners. American Medical Association Press Release. June 19, 2008.

Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, Glinsmann WH, Hein GL, Lineback DR, Miller SA, Nicklas TA, Weaver GA, White JS. 2007. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Critical Review Food Science Nutrition. 47(6):561-82.

Melanson KJ, Angelopoulos TJ, Nguyen V, Zukley L, Lowndes J, Rippe JM. Dec. 2008. High-fructose corn syrup, energy intake, and appetite regulation. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 88(6):1738S-1744S.

Soenen S, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Dec. 2007. No differences in satiety or energy intake after high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or milk preloads. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 86(6):1586-94.