There's controversy about whether high-fructose corn syrup is more harmful to your health than other sweeteners like sucrose, honey, and fruit juice concentrates.
High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener that is similar to table sugar (sucrose).
It's commonly added to beverages such as soda, as well as many processed foods like treats and snacks.
But it can also be found in many foods that you wouldn't think of as sweet, such as bread.
Made from processed corn starch, regular (not high-fructose) corn syrup is pure glucose, plus water. Glucose is the main type of sugar in your blood and provides energy to your body's cells.
During the making of high-fructose corn syrup (sometimes called HFCS), enzymes are added so that some of the glucose in corn syrup is converted to fructose, a sugar that occurs naturally in fruits.
As its names implies, high-fructose corn syrup is higher in fructose than regular corn syrup. Yet not all high-fructose corn syrup contains the same amount of fructose.
Food and beverage companies began using high-fructose corn syrup as a replacement for sucrose beginning in the 1970s, and its use rapidly grew through the mid-1990s.
It's popular because of its extra sweetness, improved stability and functionality, and ease of use in processing compared with sucrose.
Today, the United States uses both sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup in nearly equal amounts.
But the American Society for Clinical Nutrition reports that around the world, more than 90 percent of nutritive (non-diet) sweetener used is sucrose.
Sucrose vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Sucrose is most commonly known as table sugar. It's made by crystallizing sugar cane or sugar beet juice. Like high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose consists of both glucose and fructose.
Although sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup both contain roughly the same proportions of glucose and fructose, sucrose has a chemical bond joining its glucose and fructose molecules.
When you eat sucrose, your stomach acid and gut enzymes rapidly break down this bond.
High-fructose corn syrup doesn't have a chemical bond joining its glucose and fructose molecules, and unlike sucrose, it also contains water.
Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Unhealthy?
While the chemical makeup of high-fructose corn syrup isn't much different from that of other sweeteners like sucrose, honey, and fruit juice concentrates, there's ongoing controversy about whether it's more harmful to your health than these other forms of sugar.
Much of this controversy stems from the idea that as our society began to consume more high-fructose corn syrup, there was also an increase in levels of obesity and related health problems.
The debate about high-fructose corn syrup centers on how the body metabolizes fructose and other simple sugars, and whether these differences result in health consequences.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that at this time, there isn't any evidence of a difference in safety between foods containing high-fructose corn syrup and those containing similar amounts of other sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content (such as sucrose, honey, and other sweeteners like maple syrup).
It's well known, though, that a diet high in any form of added sugar can lead to a high calorie intake and health problems, including:
- Insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes)
- High blood pressure
- High blood triglyceride levels
All of these conditions raise the risk of developing heart disease and other health problems.
In their 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture recommend limiting consumption of all added sugars, including sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- What is high-fructose corn syrup? What are the health concerns? Mayo Clinic.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup: Questions and Answers; U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- J. S. White (2008). "Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain't." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.