As its name implies, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) comes from corn, not sugarcane or sugar beets. Created in the 1960’s, this additive is now found in numerous processed foods, including many sodas. The syrup has become popular for food makers because it’s cheaper than white sugar. Unlike sugar, which comes from a plant, HFCS is formed from an intricate chemical process, which breaks down corn into a sweetener. Despite the process in which they’re made, sugar and HFSC have few nutritional differences; however, both have the potential to harm your health.
Over the years, HFCS has gained a reputation for being unhealthy and fattening. It’s also stigmatized as unnatural and artificial because the production process requires the addition of enzymes and fiddling with the molecular arrangement of regular corn syrup. Additionally, some say that high-fructose corn syrup is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic, citing rising rates of obesity in lockstep with greater HFCS consumption. But the available scientific evidence is inconclusive. That doesn’t mean that HFCS is healthy. It’s still “empty” calories — no nutritional value, easily and quickly processed by the body.
There is, however, some evidence that the body treats HFCS differently than glucose, another common form of sugar. When a person’s liver is deciding what to do with glucose, it has several options: use it for energy; convert the glucose into triglycerides or store the glucose as fat. A 2008 study found that fructose seems to go directly to fat. The problem may also be more severe with those who are overweight. Fructose may also contribute to insulin resistance and disruption of appetite signaling, which could make it harder for people to feel full and eventually lead to overeating. The study concluded that fructose itself isn’t bad — particularly fructose found in fruits, which are nutrient rich — but that many people could be better served by limiting fructose consumption.
“Human studies, though short-term and small, consistently show no different impact on measures of health compared with other sugars. Though it’d be nice to have more research, we can confidently say people’s health will benefit most from limiting all sources of calorie-containing sweeteners,” Dr. Cindy Fitch, a nutrition professor at West Virginia University and co-author of an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on the topic, told the Washington Post.
One misconception about HFCS stems from its name. In fact, HFCS isn’t that much different than standard, processed white sugar. The commonly used form of HFCS contains 45 percent glucose and 55 percent fructose. In comparison, white sugar is split 50-50 between glucose and fructose. HFCS is higher in fructose than conventional corn syrup, which is 100 percent glucose. But other types of HFCS, especially those used in non-soda products like certain breads, are 58 percent glucose and only 42 percent fructose.
While research is ongoing, the message for now seems clear: For those concerned about weight gain and health, cutting back on the amount of added sugar in your diet — whether it comes from HFCS or plain sugar — is the best approach.
You can learn more about these two sweeteners in video above, which was produced by the American Chemical Society.