High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been used for decades as a food sweetener and preservative because it’s less expensive than sugar, extremely sweet, and stays fresh for a long time.
In the last few years questions about the safety and effects of HFCS have thrown the spotlight of controversy on this once prized processed food ingredient.
Food manufacturers have reacted to the publicity. While products like Hunt’s ketchup, Gatorade, Wheat Thins, and Starbucks pastries all said goodbye to the ingredient years ago, both Pepsi and Coca Cola are going another route, offering consumers a choice by rolling out varieties made with real sugar alongside those made with HFCS.
Most recently, Kraft announced that it will remove high-fructose corn syrup from Capri Sun drinks, while Hershey is also considering replacing the ingredient with real sugar in some of their products.
Even First Lady Michelle Obama was reported saying she would not allow her children to eat food that contains HFCS.
At the same time, many medical and nutrition experts maintain that there’s not enough evidence to show that fructose is any worse for you than regular sugar. So what’s the story with HFCS anyway?
Moderation is Key, For Now
“High fructose corn syrup is usually found in hyper-processed foods that aren’t good choices for many reasons,” says Johannah Sakimura, MS, Everyday Health’s Nutrition Sleuth blogger. “Treat it like other added sugars, and stick to the daily limits.”
The most recent dietary guidelines recommend keeping sugar consumption at no more than 10 percent of your total energy intake. For a 2,000 calorie diet that equates to 200 calories, or 50 grams, of sugar per day.
However, if consumption goes beyond moderate levels, it may be a different story. Research shows that the damaging effects of this sweetener could be considerable, from changing appetite satisfaction to increasing the risk of kidney stones, in addition to compounding health conditions that being overweight or obese can cause.
Why HFCS May Be Worse Than Sugar
Both table sugar (sucrose) and HFCS are combinations of fructose and glucose. Sugar is about 50 percent fructose, and HFCS contains 42 to 55 percent fructose. Fructose is also naturally found in fruits.
For many years, there was no definitive evidence proving that HFCS is less healthy than sugar. But new findings say otherwise. Studies have shown that, besides causing weight gain, HFCS raises the risks of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
They also can seriously affect the liver, at first causing a disorder called non-alcoholic steatotic hepatitis, in which fat appears in the liver. This disease can lead to metabolic syndrome, an umbrella term for some very serious symptoms, including high blood pressure, excessive fat around the middle, and excessive fats in the blood.
Research focusing on fructose has found these concerns:
- Belly fat. Researchers noticed that people gained belly fat, or weight in their midsection, when they ate fructose, but not glucose, over a 10-week period. They concluded the two sugars have a different effect on the way the body distributes fat.
- Insulin effect. Fructose is not an effective insulin stimulator, as compared to glucose (insulin is needed to convert sugar into energy).
- Effect on appetite. Scientists have observed that fructose seems to affect appetite differently than sugar. Recent research looked at the effect on brain activity of both fructose and glucose. The study found that those who ingested fructose reported greater hunger and showed greater activity in the orbitofrontal and visual cortexes of the brain in response to food images than those who ingested glucose.
Jung Kim, RD, clinical dietitian specialist at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, isn’t surprised by this research: “When we start fiddling with foods and change their shelf stability or texture, [we] are changing the chemical process.” This can lead to changing different chemical processes in the body in terms of nutrient absorption.
As the debate over HFCS continues, it’s smart to be more aware of food labeling, especially when reaching for processed foods and sweets. Kim says food manufacturers add the sweetener not just to sodas and fruit juices, but also to bread, condiments, and even deli meats.
“Narrowly focusing on fructose is missing the big picture problem: We’re eating too much added sugar, and the form is much less important than the quantity,” says Sakimura. “The science of fructose may be complicated, but the key message couldn’t be simpler: Drink and eat less sugar.”