Myth: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is worse for your health than sucrose (table or cane sugar).
Fact: HFCS is just another sugar with the same health effects as sucrose. We should be limiting all added sugars to achieve a healthy diet.
In the nutrition world there is always a ‘bad’ food of the moment and right now it is high-fructose corn syrup or HFCS. A preliminary WWW search reveals a litany of dire health consequences from scare-mongering sites including an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes and liver damage. Is there just cause to worry?
HFCS made from American corn is the most commonly used sugar in processed food and drinks in the USA, whereas in Australia it is sucrose or cane sugar (from sugar cane). We use Australian grown cane sugar in our sugar jars at home too, but in the USA beet sugar (from sugar-beets) is the more common household form of sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning it is composed of equal amounts of two monosaccharide (single sugars) stuck together: glucose and fructose. HFCS is made by adding enzymes to corn-starch to convert the starch into its composite monosaccharide sugars glucose and fructose. Honey is also composed of a combination of glucose and fructose monosaccharides. The term HFCS is a misnomer because it doesn’t actually contain high fructose levels. The name comes from the fact that pure corn syrup contains no fructose at all, but treatment with enzymes allows varying proportions of fructose to be obtained. The most common HFCS are 55% and 42% fructose (the remainder being glucose). Sucrose is digested to 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Incidentally, 100% pure fructose has been available for years as an alternative sweetener under various brand names.
What is the GI? Glucose has the highest GI of all the sugars and fructose has the lowest, and this is the reason sucrose (a blend of glucose and fructose) has a moderate GI. Although the GI of HFCS is not available, Professor Jennie Brand Miller from GI News says there is no reason to expect it to be any different to sucrose.
Why is it used? HFCS is widely used because US agricultural policy favours corn farmers and makes imported sugar more expensive. Food manufacturers like it because it is economical, it is liquid and easy to mix, and adds good texture and sweetness to a wide range of foods.
Is it harmful? Digestion of HFCS, cane sugar, beet sugar and honey all yield similar amounts of glucose and fructose during digestion. There is no reason to expect HFCS to have unique effects on health for this reason. Like all simple sugars, these are absorbed by the small intestine: glucose can be used for energy throughout the body whereas fructose is transported to the liver for conversion to metabolic energy. Many of the studies with adverse findings are from pure fructose feeding in animals, and cannot be separated from overfeeding with any sugar, or overfeeding in general. It seems over-eating and getting fat is bad for our metabolic health but it is not due to a specific effect of HFCS.
A recent study published in the journal Obesity found US sodas (soft drinks) made with HFCS were higher in fructose than expected- on average 59% and up to 65%, which is much higher than sucrose: perhaps another reason to give these drinks a miss if you are living in the USA.
- A recent review published in Nutrition Metabolism concludes that “moderate fructose consumption of no more than 50g/day or around 10% of energy has no deleterious effect on lipid and glucose control and of no more than 100g/day does not influence body weight. No fully relevant data account for a direct link between moderate dietary fructose intake and health risk markers”.
- The American Medical Association calls for more research but says it is unlikely that HFCS contributes to obesity anymore than sucrose.
- The Huffington Post quoted Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest saying sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same, and there's no evidence that the sweetener is any worse for the body than sugar.
- Even Michael Pollan in his book Food Rules says “high fructose corn syrup is no worse for you than sugar” but then says to avoid it anyway because foods made with it are highly processed.
While HFCS may not have the best reputation, its adverse health effects are exaggerated. We should regard HFCS as we do other added sugars and enjoy them in moderation within a healthy balanced diet.
Nicole Senior MSc (Nut&Diet) BSc (Nut) is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist. For more information on heart-friendly eating and fabulous recipes low in saturated fat and high on flavour check out Nicole’s books Eat to beat Cholesterol and Heart Food HERE.