For decades, high-fructose corn syrup has been used as a sweetener in processed foods.
Due to its fructose content, it has been heavily criticized for its potential negative health effects.
Many people claim that it’s even more harmful than other sugar-based sweeteners.
This article compares high-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar, reviewing whether one is worse than the other.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener derived from corn syrup, which is processed from corn.
It’s used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks — primarily in the United States.
Similarly to regular table sugar (sucrose), it’s composed of both fructose and glucose.
It became a popular sweetener in the late 1970s when the price of regular sugar was high, while corn prices were low due to government subsidies (1).
SUMMARY High-fructose corn syrup is a sugar-based sweetener, used in processed foods and drinks in the United States. Like regular sugar, it consists of the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
High fructose corn syrup is made from corn (maize), which is usually genetically modified (GMO).
The corn is first milled to produce corn starch, which is then processed further to create corn syrup ().
Corn syrup consists mostly of glucose. To make it sweeter and more similar in taste to regular table sugar (sucrose), some of that glucose is converted to fructose using enzymes.
Different types of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) provide varying proportions of fructose.
For example, while HFCS 90 — the most concentrated form — contains 90% fructose, the most commonly used type, HFCS 55, consists of 55% fructose and 42% glucose.
HFCS 55 is similar to sucrose (regular table sugar), which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.
SUMMARY High-fructose corn syrup is produced from corn (maize) starch, which is further refined to produce syrup. The most common type has a fructose-to-glucose ratio similar to table sugar.
There are only tiny differences between HFCS 55 — the most common type of high-fructose corn syrup — and regular sugar.
A major difference is that high-fructose corn syrup is liquid — containing 24% water — whereas table sugar is dry and granulated.
In terms of chemical structure, the fructose and glucose in high-fructose corn syrup are not bound together like in granulated table sugar (sucrose).
Instead, they float separately alongside each other.
These differences do not affect nutritional value or health properties.
In your digestive system, sugar is broken down into fructose and glucose — so corn syrup and sugar end up looking exactly the same.
Gram for gram, HFCS 55 has slightly higher levels of fructose than regular sugar. The difference is very small and not particularly relevant from a health perspective.
Of course, if you compared regular table sugar and HFCS 90, which has 90% fructose, regular sugar would be far more desirable, as excessive consumption of fructose can be very harmful.
However, HFCS 90 is rarely used — and then only in tiny amounts due to its extreme sweetness ().
SUMMARY High-fructose corn syrup and table sugar (sucrose) are almost identical. The main difference is that the fructose and glucose molecules are bound together in table sugar.
The main reason why sugar-based sweeteners are unhealthy is because of the large amount of fructose they supply.
The liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts. When your liver gets overloaded, it turns the fructose into fat ().
Some of that fat can lodge in your liver, contributing to fatty liver. High fructose consumption is also linked to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and type 2 diabetes (, , ).
High-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar have a very similar blend of fructose and glucose — with a ratio of about 50:50.
Therefore, you would expect the health effects to be largely the same — which has been confirmed numerous times.
When comparing equal doses of high-fructose corn syrup and regular sugar, research shows that there's no difference in feelings of fullness, insulin response, leptin levels, or effects on body weight (, , , 11).
Thus, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are exactly the same from a health perspective.
SUMMARY Many studies show that sugar and high-fructose corn syrup have similar effects on health and metabolism. Both are harmful when consumed in excess.
Though excessive fructose from added sugar is unhealthy, you should not avoid eating fruit.
Fruit are whole foods, with plenty of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. It’s very difficult to overeat fructose if you're only getting it from whole fruit ().
The negative health effects of fructose only apply to excessive added sugars, which are typical for a high-calorie, Western diet.
SUMMARY Though fruit are among the richest natural sources of fructose, they’re associated with health benefits. Adverse health effects are only linked to an excessive intake of added sugar.
The most common form of high-fructose corn syrup, HFCS 55, is virtually identical to regular table sugar.
Evidence to suggest that one is worse than the other is currently lacking.
In other words, they’re both equally bad when consumed in excess.