High Fructose Corn Syrup - Friend or Foe?
High-fructose corn syrup - you’re probably heard people talk about how bad it is for you, and you’ve probably seen products that advertise “no high-fructose corn syrup!” on their labels. You may have also see articles from the “nutritional authorities” that it’s NOT bad for you, but has been over-hyped.
So...who should you believe? Is high fructose corn syrup going to kill you? Or is that all a media scare?
Well, obviously, I think you should believe me. Keep reading.
The Short Answer: It’s not really much worse than table sugar. However, you should absolutely try to avoid products that contain it because, yes, it will kill you (well, make you sick).
What it is: High fructose corn syrup was first introduced in the 1970s as an alternative to sugar (sucrose). The food industry loved this, because corn was everywhere in the United States, making HFCS easy and cheap to get. Plus, it was a syrup instead of a granular substance so it didn’t need to be dissolved in water before use the way that normal sugar did. It also was more stable than regular sugar, and could be used in acidic beverages and foods where regular sugar failed.
How Does It Compare to Other Sweeteners?: According to the corn industry (see infographic below), who makes it, there are two types of HFCS - one with a composition of 55% fructose and 45% glucose, and one with a composition of 42% fructose and 58% glucose. Normal sugar and honey are both 50/50 fructose/glucose.
Interestingly, the 55/45 HFCS would be slightly worse for you than regular sugar, and would be slightly sweeter tasting. The 42/58 HFCS would be slightly better for you. This is because studies show that fructose is sweeter and causes more metabolic issues than glucose (see the sources below). However, there is no way to know which type of HFCS you are eating, because nutrition labels don’t differentiate between the types. This seems stupid to me, but I don’t make the rules.
Doubts Begin: In 2004, a study was published that pointed out a correlation between the use of HFCS in food and obesity in the US. The author noted that more research needed to be done to see if this might be the case, and the media went nuts. What the media didn’t mention was that the author of the article was focusing specifically on the quantity of HFCS being consumed, especially in sugar drinks such as soda.
Hint: Soda makes you fat and sick. You should probably stop drinking it, immediately. Like, go home and dump your pop cans down the toilet, right now. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime.
The biggest takeaway from this study, and the oodles of studies that followed showing that over-consumption of HFCS causes lots of problems, is that people on an American Diet eat way too much sugar. Because HFCS is so cheap and easy to manufacture, it’s in basically everything, and people eat it all the time, resulting in lots of issues like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and more. Like any sugar, it also has addictive properties, so it makes sense than food manufacturers would want to add it to their foods - it keeps consumers eating and buying the products.
Evidence Surfaces: Science - rightfully! - decided to investigate HFCS as a possible cause of obesity after the correlation between HFCS and obesity was recognized. A few studies showed that HFCS was a little worse than normal sucrose, but most showed no difference between the two. I personally hypothesize that this may be related to the two types of HFCS that aren’t differentiated by labeling.
The evidence makes it exceptionally clear that HFCS is not significantly worse than table sugar, but that it is really bad for you, especially if you over-consume it.
Why You Should Avoid HFCS Anyway:
1) You probably eat way too much sugar as it is. Avoiding it is good. And avoiding the processed foods where it tends to hide in large quantities is good for a lot of reasons.
2) HFCS is added sugar - seriously, why do food companies sweeten everything? By avoiding it, you are cutting out a lot of the processed foods with added sugar. Just don’t replace it with processed foods that have different sugars.
3) HFCS has no nutritional benefits. Neither does table sugar, but you know what does have benefits, like vitamins and stuff? Honey and real maple syrup - eat those instead if you can.
HOWEVER - watch your labels. Personally, if I’m comparing two loaves of bread and one has HFCS but a sugar content of 1g per slice, and another loaf has real sugar but a sugar content of 3g per slice...I’m buying the bread with less sugar overall.
***NOTE: The less-sugar philosophy does not apply to artificial sweeteners, like saccharine and aspartame. Artificial sweeteners are on the short list of items that should never be ingested. More later***
Detailed pro-HFCS article that is well-sourced: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/88/6/1716S.full#ref-10
The 2004 study showing a correlation between HFCS and obesity: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/4/537.abstract?ijkey=ed7a36ac4061119f5fac2d8062f269269810eda4&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha
Increase in fructose consumption, links to disease: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-fructose-bad-for-you-201104262425
Some studies examining effects of HFCS, standard table sugar, fructose, and glucose. There are ton more available with a quick search on Google Scholar.
https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/96/10/E1596/2834769/Consumption-of-Fructose-and-High-Fructose-Corn (with this study keep in mind that table sugar is half glucose and half fructose)
Picture of No HFCS Label: http://naturalsociety.com/high-fructose-corn-syrup-reduces-lifespan-harms-reproduction/ HFCS Death-Spoon Picture: http://www.greatlakesprovings.com/high-fructose-corn-syrup.html
Conclusions: HFCS is super bad for you. But so is table sugar. And higher fructose HFCS is marginally worse for you than table sugar, but you should probably just focus on not eating added sugar.