Is high-fructose corn syrup really as bad as they say?
Several of you have written to ask me about high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient used in virtually every processed and packaged food you buy. There’s been a whole lot of negative press about high-fructose corn syrup, and it’s something I’ve written about many times on my nutrition blog at NutritionData.com. A lot of people are convinced that high-fructose corn syrup is to blame for our exploding rates of obesity and diabetes.
The argument goes something like this:
Food and beverage manufacturers used to make their products with the same kind of sugar that you use in your kitchen: cane sugar, also known as table sugar, or sucrose. But in the 1980s, manufacturers started to use high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar because it was a lot cheaper.
Looking back, we can see that the American problem really started to get out of control right around the time that food manufacturers started using high-fructose corn syrup. There’s your smoking gun. But there’s more: Studies have also shown that the liver converts fructose to fat much more readily than other forms of sugar. Well, that proves it! We all got fat because the food manufacturers poisoned us with an unnatural form of extra-fattening sugar.
At this point, people are not only rooting through their pantries, throwing out everything with high-fructose corn syrup on the label, they’re swearing off fruit as well. After all, fruit is full of fructose.
OK, let’s all just calm down.
A Little Chemistry Makes Things Clearer
As is so often the case, a little chemistry helps makes things a lot clearer. Table sugar, or sucrose, is actually made up of two types of sugar molecules; it’s about equal parts glucose and fructose.
Regular corn syrup, the kind that you can buy on the grocery store, has a different profile. It’s much lower in fructose than table sugar. You heard me correctly: Corn syrup is naturally quite low in fructose. And that makes it a poor substitute for table sugar. Things made with regular corn syrup don’t taste the same as things made with table sugar.
The breakthrough for food manufacturers came when they figured out how to produce a corn syrup that was higher in fructose. High-fructose corn syrup actually has about the same amount of fructose as regular table sugar—making it a viable alternative for food processing. Because corn syrup is so much cheaper than cane sugar, manufacturers quickly adopted it and high-fructose corn syrup has largely replaced cane sugar in manufactured foods.
But here’s what gets lost in the high-fructose hysteria: Foods and drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup are, in general, no higher in fructose than foods made with regular sugar. But they are cheaper.
It’s true that Americans started getting a lot fatter right about the time that manufacturers started using high-fructose corn syrup in soda. But let’s not overlook the fact that we also started drinking a lot more soda right around the same time. I don’t think it would have mattered whether the soda were sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup or table sugar. When you consume too much sugar, you tend to gain weight.
In other words, I believe that the link between high-fructose corn syrup and obesity has less to do with chemistry and more to do with economics. High-fructose corn syrup is no more fattening or harmful than table sugar. But it is cheaper and, therefore, may be easier to over-consume.
The Bottom Line
So, my quick and dirty tip, for all of you that wrote to ask about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup, is simply to limit your intake of refined sugar—in all its forms. But I don’t think you don’t need to worry about high-fructose corn syrup any more than any other form of sugar.
The World Health Organization recommends that you limit your intake of added sugars to no more than 10% of your calories. That doesn’t count the sugar that is naturally present in fruits, dairy products, and other whole foods. They’re talking about foods that have sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) added to them. And let me tell you, this did NOT sit well with the sugar industry.
If you’re an average-sized adult, ten percent of your calories is around 50 grams of sugar, or the equivalent of 4 tablespoons of table sugar, or one 16-ounce bottle of soda. Check the nutrition facts labels on packaged foods to see how many grams of sugar they contain and make sure you’re not consuming more than you mean to. You can also find the sugar content of thousands of common foods at NutritionData.com.
And one last thing: Don’t let high-fructose hysteria scare you off of fruit. Eating two to four servings of whole fruit every day is a great way to watch both your health and your waistline.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.
These tips are provided for your information and entertainment and are not intended as medical advice. Because everyone is different, please work with your health professional to determine what’s right for you.
If you have a nutrition question for me, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a voicemail at 206-203-1438. You can also check me out on Facebook or Twitter. I love to hear from you!
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Thanks for listening. Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Obese America: Is High Fructose Corn Syrup to Blame (on the Nutrition Data blog)
Sugar Industry takes on the World Health Organization (Talk of the Nation from NPR)