Is high fructose corn syrup bad for you, and is high fructose corn syrup worse than sugar? The answer to the first question is yes. The second one is a controversial issue, but the answer is also yes. Neither one offers your body nutritional benefit, and in general Americans eat way too much of them both, but high fructose corn syrup—frequently abbreviated to HFCS—has more drawbacks than sugar, particularly if weight loss concerns you.
How did we get to the point where Americans have been consuming so much of it? That goes back to 1977, when the U.S. put tariffs on the importing of sugar from other countries, and today sugar costs roughly twice as much in the U.S as on the world market. As a result of that, plus massive subsidies to the American corn industry, corn syrup is very cheap. Manufacturers like that, as well as some characteristics that make it easier for them to use than sugar.
The corn refining industry has come up with a new term; they would like it to be called “corn sugar.” So if you come across this term in the future, be aware of what it is. If you are in the U.K, you may know this substance as glucose-fructose syrup. In Canada it may be called glucose/fructose. Many parts of the world say maize where we Americans say corn, and so they call the stuff high fructose maize syrup.
Glucose and Fructose
Fructose is easy to remember because it is the kind of sweetener in fruit. So the FR at the start of both words is helpful. Is fructose unhealthy? Yes, though healthy eating certainly includes some fruit and sweet vegetables.
Ordinary sugar, made from sugar cane or sugar beets, is composed of half glucose (often called simple sugar) and half fructose. HFCS is not actually much higher in fructose than sugar, as it is 55%. Agave syrup, widely touted as a healthy sweetener, is way up at 90%, and fruit juice concentrates are quite high too. The “high fructose” descriptor in the term high fructose corn syrup is there to distinguish it from other kinds of corn syrup which have more glucose.
Still, in the typical American diet, HFCS is the main source of fructose consumed—and HFCS is a significant source of calories for Americans.
WHY Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse than Sugar?
A multi-million dollar ad campaign produced for the Corn Refiners Association state that HFCS is a natural product (“natural” tends to be a rather meaningless word when applied to food), and a good number of scientists have agreed with their assertion that it acts in the body in the same way as sugar. Actually, HFCS shouldn’t be called natural because quite a complex chemical process is used in making it, which includes using an enzyme which is genetically modified. (What corn nowadays isn’t genetically modified?)
But a study done at Princeton compared the effects of HFCS and table sugar on rats. I know you are not a rat, but these little rodents have bodies that act very much like ours in terms of how they handle food. This study is noteworthy in that many of the previous studies have compared the effects of pure glucose and fructose, rather than comparing the items we actually consume.
So what they did at Princeton was that they gave one group of rats free access to water sweetened with HFCS, while another group got water sweetened with sugar. Their finding: “Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.” The harm didn’t stop there; the HFCS rats gained more fat on their abdomens and their triglycerides rose more. You can read more about the research at Science Daily.
It isn’t just rats that get fat, including the undesirable belly fat that is linked to serious health problems. Humans who consume a lot of HFCS in sodas or in many items on grocery store shelves may also discover that fructose tends to produce fat directly, where glucose is either used for energy or stored as a carbohydrate. This is quite possibly a main reason that American obesity rates have gone way up in recent years. It may be occurring because the fructose in high fructose corn syrup is not chemically bound with the glucose in the same way that it is in sugar. This seems to make it easier to create fat in our bodies. For more on this see an article titled Corn Syrup’s New Disguise. In the article—worth reading all the way through—a researcher is quoted as saying, “Our study shows… the surprising speed with which humans make body fat from fructose..”
Dr. Andrew Weil says on his website that HFCS is bad for you and for the planet, and that it is a “major driver of the obesity epidemic.” Dr. Oz is no fan either.
There is evidence that HFCS consumption is linked with higher rates of diabetes, reason enough to remove it from your diet.
So What to Do? Seven Tips
- Read labels. Take your reading glasses to the grocery store, or a pocket magnifying glass, if you can’t read the fine print often used. You may be surprised at how many items contain it.
- Drink plain water. You could add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice. Even a dash of fruit juice wouldn’t do you much harm if it was really just a tiny amount in your glass of water.
- Don’t assume that artificial sweeteners like Splenda™ and NutraSweet™and others are a better choice. They can be worse. Here’s a book on Amazon that explains that more fully. Even if you don’t get the book, reading the reviews will give you the idea: Sweet Deception: Why Splenda, NutraSweet, and the FDA May Be Hazardous to Your Health
- Find a sweetener that you like, such as stevia or xylitol.
- Don’t worry about the amount of fructose you get in eating fruit or sweet vegetables, as you get nutrients and fiber as well. But don’t overdo them.
- Either stop eating at fast food places or at least ask if they use HFCS. Starbuck’s has stopped using it, and no doubt many other places as well.
- Try going off all sweeteners for a couple of weeks and see if your tastes and cravings change. This approach is one of the mainstays of how the South Beach diet works.
In sum, is high fructose corn syrup bad for you? is high fructose corn syrup worse than sugar? Yes, yes.