High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Sugar

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on June 16, 2016Written by Elea Carey on September 22, 2014
corn syrup in beaker

Corn syrup vs. sugar

You’ve known since the first time your mom hid your Halloween candy that sugar is bad for you. It packs on the pounds, offers no nutritional value, and encourages the bacteria that rot your teeth.

Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that American men consume nearly 400 calories a day in added sweeteners, while women consume over 250 calories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans eat about 65 pounds of sugar plus nearly 65 pounds of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) every year. That means an American woman of average weight and eating habits consumes her weight in HFCS about every two and a half years.

But what’s the difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup? And is one of them better for you?

What is HFCS and how is it made?

Both sugar and HFCS begin out in the field: sugar as sugarcane or the sugar beet, and HFCS as corn. To make HFCS, caustic soda is used to shuck the corn kernel from its starch. The result is the corn syrup you might have used to make pecan pie. Then enzymes are introduced to convert the syrup’s sugars to super-sweet fructose. Unlike sugar, you’ll never see HFCS on the supermarket shelves. It’s only available to food processors.

Is HFCS bad for you?

A quick internet search will present dozens of articles on the so-called dangers of HFCS, compared to other sweeteners. Reputable studies have concluded that the dietary risks of sugar and HFCS consumption are generally the same. HFCS does have some unique properties you should be aware of.

In 2009, one study detected mercury in about one-third of tested products sweetened with HFCS. Mercury is released in the production of caustic soda, which separates the cornstarch from the kernel. Mercury poses dangers to the liver, kidneys, brain, and other internal organs. The authors warned that mercury can be toxic at high levels, especially for children.

Where is it all coming from?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since 1950, corn sweeteners in our diets have octupled. You read that right: We get eight times as much corn sweetener in our diet today than we did 60 years ago. But why?

HFCS is inexpensive and easy to use. While sugarcane requires a hot climate to grow in, corn can be grown almost anywhere. This makes HFCS cheaper to produce. All three sugar crops are subsidized by the U.S. government. HFCS’s liquid form also makes it cheaper to transport, since it can be piped into trucks with less loss than granular sugar. That liquid state also makes HFCS easier to blend with other ingredients than sugar.

Most national brands of soda sold in the United States contain HFCS. It’s also a common ingredient of cereals, crackers, and ice cream. Even whole-wheat breads that seem healthy sometimes contain the sweetener. Condiments, most notably ketchup, contain HFCS, as do some canned soups. Look for HFCS in salad dressings, frozen dinners, and pizza.

Different types of sugars

HFCS has become so popular with food manufacturers that it’s almost easier to identify the few prepared foods that contain sugar. Additionally, HFCS and sugar from sugarcane or the sugar beet are sometimes used in the same foods.

There are many forms of dietary sugar. The most common is glucose. Fructose appears mostly in fruits, while lactose and galactose are found mostly in milk and dairy products. Sucrose, meanwhile, is what we get in table sugar, and is the form that nutrition labels usually list simply as “sugar.” Sucrose is made up of 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, while HFCS is made up of either 42 percent fructose (in foods with HFCS) or 55 percent fructose (in soft drinks), with the remainder being glucose and water.

How to tell the difference

The easiest way to tell the difference between products that contain sugar and those that contain HFCS is to become an avid reader of product labels and ingredients.

While nutrition labels group sugars together as part of the total carbohydrate content, the ingredients list spells out where those sugars come from. Glucose, sucrose, fructose, lactose, galactose, maltose, and disaccharides are all forms of sugar.

While HFCS is usually labeled as such on nutrition labels, you can also figure out whether a product contains it by looking at the “total carbohydrates” and “total sugars” numbers if the item is a pure sugar food (such as syrup). If the “sugars” count is lower, the difference is likely HFCS.

While not all processed foods are bad for you, you should certainly be aware that many contain sweeteners, including HFCS, and those empty calories add up to a less healthy you. Whether sugar or HFCS, you should always put a limit on how many sweeteners you consume.

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