Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Really the Devil?

Food marketing is so interesting!  An article in the New York Times recently caught my eye.  “Sugar was the old devil and high-fructose corn syrup is the new devil,” commented a market research company analyst.  “Really?” I thought.  Apparently many food manufacturers are beginning to use sugar as a selling point, in light of the negative publicity that high fructose corn syrup has been getting.  The public has been given the message that high fructose corn syrup is largely responsible for the rise in obesity in this country.  We have been given the impression that there is something about high fructose corn syrup that causes our bodies to store fat more efficiently than other sweeteners.  In other words, the message has been that we somehow metabolize it in a unique way that causes it to have a special ability to make us fatter.

I have heard this argument for a while now, but I was shocked that manufacturers are now touting sugar as a healthy additive.  In some cases, they are investing in reformulating, repackaging, and developing new marketing strategies for their products when the research just does not support the basis for it.  Pepsi has come out with a new Pepsi Natural soda with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener, and Healthy Choice has introduced its All Natural frozen entrees with, you guessed it, natural sugar.  I think this is ridiculous, and I will explain why.

When studies compare high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar), there do not appear to be significant differences in fasting blood glucose or insulin levels, nor are there significant differences in the levels of leptin or ghrelin, two hormones that affect appetite.  In fact, studies of satiety of the two sweeteners did not find differences in appetite, fullness, or short-term energy intakes.  Further,the chemical makeup of the two sweeteners is virtually identical, both containing about 50% fructose and %50 glucose.  They contain the same number of calories as well.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has concluded that high fructose corn syrup “does not appear to contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners.”   Sugar in either form, sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, is not a health food, but it is not the devil either.  It depends on how you incorporate them into your life.  I wholeheartedly believe that there should be a place for pleasure in our eating, and sweetness is a taste almost everyone enjoys.  Still, an excess of sweet empty calories will make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight and a balanced diet.  The AMA recommends limiting added sugars to 8 teaspoons a day.  That is the equivalent of 32 grams of added sugar.  This does not include naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit.  For most people, this is a challenge, when you see that one can of soda has about 12 teaspoons (48 grams) of added sugars!  It is no wonder why eliminating soda can be such an opportunity for weight loss and health improvement for some people.  As in all things, I think that the actual number goal is not as important as the direction you are moving.  Moving in a direction of positive change is beneficial, even if your initial goal is to decrease added sugars from 150 to 120 grams a day.  It is a start, and momentum is everything!

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6 responses to “Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Really the Devil?

  1. So the question remains, is one naturally made (sugar) and the other chemically made (high fructose corn syrup)?

    • kimthedietitian

      Actually, they are both made from naturally grown products: corn and sugar cane. They both go through some processing, so neither are entirely “natural,” but one is not worse than the other in any way I know. Thanks for your comment!

  2. kim, what about turbinado sugar? the brand is calls ‘sugar in the raw’ and the box indicates it is: 100% pure hawaiian cane sugar. The natual molasses remains in the crystals, thus its golden color. Is this type of sugar any better that refined white sugar or high-fructose
    corn syrup?

    • kimthedietitian

      Turbinado sugar is less processed than regular white sugar. It is crystallized from sugar cane extract and packaged before further processing occurs. Chemically, it is similar to regular sugar, but it does contain slightly fewer calories due to its higher moisture content (11 calories per teaspoon compared with 16 for regular white sugar). Some people consider it healthier than white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup because it is less processed, but it still has a similar effect on the body in terms of blood sugar. Since the lower calorie content is only a result of higher moisture content, I would imagine that each teaspoon is also a little less sweet and you may end up using the same number of calories by adding just a bit more.

  3. It’s a paradox that whatever hum beings love, seems to be bad for them. I’m not so sure of that.

    Take salt for instance, it is healthy for us, but raw and some doctors say that it is a bad idea to cut down in salt intake. Who’s right or wrong?

    • kimthedietitian

      There is so much information about health these days, so it can be confusing. Most people get far too much salt in their diet, mostly through processed foods, but raw salt is still salt. Too much salt can increase heart disease risk. Research makes it clear that we should try to limit salt intake for better health.

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