Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Compared to sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse for your health

Regular table sugar, or sucrose, (also called cane sugar) is made of equal parts of two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose. When digested, it immediately breaks down into these two components and that’s what your body absorbs: glucose and fructose. HFCS has the exact same constituents in a slightly different proportion: the most common HFCS, used in soft drinks, contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose (hence, high fructose). So, ingesting HFCS instead of table sugar gives you a wee bit more fructose and a wee bit less glucose. Big whoop. To listen to some people, HFCS is the end of civilization as we know it! Yet, many studies have been conducted comparing HFCS to table sugar, and they have failed to turn up any real difference in their effects on the body, including insulin, triglycerides, blood glucose, or appetite-related hormones.

The HFCS alarmists also overlook two interesting facts:

  • The most common type of HFCS, called HFCS 55 because it contains 55% fructose, is used primarily in soft drinks, and it is supposedly evil because it contains too much fructose. Yet, there is also HFCS 42, used in some beverages, baked goods, and processed foods) which contains 42% fructose and 53% glucose – more glucose than fructose. Somehow they are both equally evil, according to the alarmists, one because it contains too much fructose and the other because it contains – what, too little fructose? Oh please!
  • Honey, beloved of health food fans, contains more fructose, relative to glucose, than the worst HFCS – 38% fructose and 31% glucose, approximately. I don’t recall hearing about any anti-honey campaigns, do you?

This does not mean that HFCS is good for you! It just means that it is no worse than cane sugar. More and more evidence indicates that the problems with sugar are not the type of sugar you eat, but the amount. Overdoing it on organic honey is just as bad as eating too much of any other source of sugar.

What about taste? Some people claim that soft drinks made with cane sugar taste better than the HFCS versions, and they’ll go to great lengths to get it, such as driving to Canada to buy cane sugar Coke. I can’t tell the difference, but perhaps some people can.

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17 responses to “Compared to sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse for your health

  1. Greg January 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    What about the Princeton study that showed rats fed a HFCS diet gained weight considerably more than ones fed a cane-sugar diet? Sugar water diet had the same amount of callories as the HFCS diet.
    http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/

  2. kitchenmyths January 3, 2012 at 8:12 am

    That’s an interesting study, but the fact is that people are not rats. Given the various studies that show no effect of HFCS in humans, I am puzzled as to why anyone would even care what effects it has in rats.

  3. AB January 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I think that the real issue with HFCS isn’t how it compares health-wise to sugar, but the fact that its lower price makes it more desirable to add to many many processed foods and beverages, and making those foods and beverages cost less and taste sweeter, so people consume more. Do you think movie theaters would upgrade your “medium” Pepsi to a “large” for only 20 cents if there were actual, relatively pricey, sugar in the drink? The problem is a lack of knowledge by the general public of serving sizes – many people will guzzle and chow down on anything they can get their hands on if they think they’re getting a deal. And the HFCS industry has made it so that real fruit juice is more expensive than soda.

  4. GG January 11, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    If you look at the studies, if they say there is no difference between HFCS and sugar, they are sponsored by the industry. In fact, fructose is not digested the same way and goes directly to the liver which is not good. Our bodies handle it more like alcohol than glucose.

  5. june toroda February 9, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Do some more research on this. Many studies have shown that HFCS can cause organ failure, particularly the liver.
    It is banned in Europe and although Coca Coal put it into all their products, as do Pepsi, for the US market in Europe they use sugar. WHile sugar isn’t great it does not have the liver coroding properties of HFCS.
    SO … unless you are part of their campaign to make the ever gullible American consumer believe that all sugars are the same and are getting paid for this, I think you must remove that as a myth.. HFCS is poison.

    • kitchenmyths February 10, 2012 at 8:21 am

      I am afraid it’s you who needs to do the research. HFCS is not banned in Europe, that’s a lie. It is under a production quota so there is not enough to go around, requiring the use of sugar in some drinks. In all my research I did not find a single legitimate study that showed any physical harm from HFCS. Maybe you have one to cite?

      • GG February 10, 2012 at 11:33 am

        Check out Robert Lustig and a whole lot of biochemistry. HFCS is banned in Canada but the industry changed the process and name to evade the law. It is precisely the small difference that you cite the makes it dangerous. Our bodies aren’t meant to handle fructose without the other ingredients that accompany it in whole produce. In addition, we don’t know what the real ratio is, but we do know that the version used in some jproducts is more like 70/30 or higher. I also have personal experience. I had some yesterday because I failed to read the label (two similar items side-by-side on a shelf). It set off cravings and today I’m having trouble typing this because my hands are shaking, I’m sick. My blood sugar is out of sight. Also check out Chris Kressler’s work and Robb Wolf.

  6. kitchenmyths February 17, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    You are mistaken – HFCS is not banned in Canada. That’s another falsehood, similar to the falsehood that HFCS is banned in Europe, that is spread by the HFCS-paranoids. There is a petition in Canada to ban HFCS, but it is not getting much attention from sensible people. It’s also true that cane sugar is used in Canada more often than in the US, but that’s mainly because Canada does not have tariffs and import restrictions that drive up the cost of cane sugar in the US, making HFCS cheaper to use.

    I have no particular liking for HFCS, I almost never eat it. But, that’s because I rarely drink soft drinks or eat processed foods and not because I have fallen for the paranoid tin-foil-hat claptrap that is out there. Perhaps it will someday be shown that HFCS has deleterious health effects, but that day has not come yet. If … IF …that day ever comes, I will be the first one to change my tune.

    • GG February 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      I really appreciate your considerate and respectful tone. Merely disagreeing with you on the basis of significant scientific research does not make a person delusional.

  7. orges May 21, 2012 at 7:39 am

    For sure that this is not the end of the world, but there are studies suggesting that a high fructose consumption (either from HFCS or by drinking too much fruit juice or by eating too much table sugar) might be a real problem:

    http://www.nature.com/nrgastro/journal/v7/n5/abs/nrgastro.2010.41.html

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/x916738m64212141/?MUD=MP

    http://jp.physoc.org/content/590/10/2485.full.pdf+html

    Perhaps evidences are not still conclusive, but it cannot be said that it’s the same as any other sugar.

    Cheers

  8. jose martinez June 9, 2012 at 1:30 am

    It is interesting, fo me, to note that I can taste and smell the difference between cane sugar, beet sugar (it’s the beets!) and HFCS (it’s the corn!) and I do miss the taste of sugar cane flavored Coke, but I realized the problem was the quantity, the overall comsumption! Even before adding sugar to a drink or my hot chocolate, it was already there! I haved cut white sugaar from my diet, and the products I buy now are low on sugar or sugar free.

  9. Curious August 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    I’m still not satisfied that the simple known science is being explained on the first page of google hits. Google university, free and worth every nickel 😉

    Anyway … from what I gather,
    table sugar is about 50/50 fructose and glucose, bound together in some way
    hfcs is a variable ratio — depends on what the refiner and buyer want — of fructose and glucose, but they are not chemically attached in the same way. Here I don’t understand what the difference is.

    Results: HFCS and sugar contain the same molecules in somewhat different proportions, and have a slight difference in their chemistry. The main difference we know of involves how sucrose and fructose are bound together. Logically, this may or may not affect how the stuff is digested and the effect may or may not be proportional to the amount of difference in chemical properties.

    We don’t understand everything about how the body works, but there is a fair amount of knowledge of how simple sugars are metabolized.

    There’s universal agreement that foods with significant added sugar – cake, candy, and the 1000s of packaged items which have sweetener added – have nasty effects which accelerate as one eats more of the stuff. But it’s _still_ not clear to me whether HFCS is effectively sugar by a different name (it does not taste exactly the same, I had Coke made with sugar and it had a noticeable difference) or whether it is digested differently. I was hoping this site would answer the question, but I don’t see it convincingly explored here.

    • kitchenmyths August 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Table (cane or beet) sugar is indeed half glucose and half fructose – one glucose molecule bonds to one fructose molecule to form one sucrose molecule. Your digestive system cannot absorb sucrose, but digestion breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose, which can be absorbed. So, eating a teaspoon of cane sugar is essentially the same as eating 1/2 tsp of glucose and 1/2 tsp of fructose, at least as far as digestion and nutrition are concerned.

      HFCS contains glucose and fructose molecules that are not bound to each other. As you note, the proportions differ according to use. HFCS 55, used in soft drinks, is 55% fructose and 42% glucose (with small amounts of other sugars). Thus, eating a teaspoon of HFCS 55 is like eating a small bit more than 1/2 tsp of fructose and a small bit less than 1/2 tsp of glucose. It’s this small amount of excess fructose, we are told by the HFCS alarmists, that is going to ruin our health and kill us dead. Evidence? I don’t think so.

      I do not doubt that you can taste the difference – but a health danger? It’s the amount of sugar, not the kind, that matters. Please see the original posting, I have added some new information.

  10. Ann August 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Cane sugar tastes different to me, I even prefer it. Avoiding any sugar is even better though. For me it’s all about the flavor.

  11. Tim Kelley May 16, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Cane sugar definitely tastes better to me, and I usually prefer light brown sugar to white in general – that molasses hint makes a wonderful lemonade. HFCS has an absolutely disgusting taste if you’ve ever had the displeasure of tasteing it “straight” and I find most HFCS products have a rather sickly sweet taste.

  12. Seraphalx June 16, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    KitchenMyths, I’m starting to love your website.

    Anyway, if you ever have the opportunity, drink a sip of Mountain Dew and then a sip of Mountain Dew Throwback. I think you’ll taste a vast difference.

  13. michaeljmcfadden May 19, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Excellent analysis and presentation KM! 🙂 You do seem to have a real respect for examining the science behind the claims out there, something I share in my own research. Someone mentioned Robert Lustig to you, but they didn’t provide a link. Listen to his claim in the first twenty seconds of this video and then consider how much you can believe of the rest of what he says:

    http://www.ucsfbenioffchildrens.org/news/2012/02/societal_control_of_sugar_essential_to_ease_public_health_bu.html

    – MJM

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