High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Did we miss the most important message?
Sunday, August 23, 2009
LifeTime WeightLoss in Carbohydrates, Nutrition, Sugar, Tom Nikkola, high-fructose corn syrup

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

High Fructose Corn Syrup has been in the news for the past several years. The public opinion of this sugar source has been powerful enough to cause food manufacturers to begin replacing HFCS in many of their foods with alternative sugars. Even though HFCS may not be a nutritious ingredient in foods, the public may get misled into thinking the alternatives to this sugar are more healthy. We'll take a brief look at some of the concerns related to HFCS and discuss why some of the "natural" and "healthy" alternatives may not be all that healthy after all.

Confusion Between HFCS and Fructose

Since 1999, many research articles have shown the potential for high levels of fructose to negatively impact health. Some of the potential effects of high levels of fructose consumption include:


It's important to remember the issues above are related to fructose consumption in most of the research. The name "high fructose corn syrup" implies this sugar contains a high amount of fructose. In fact, the form of HFCS most commonly used in foods and drinks is called HFCS-55, which contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Two other forms are HFCS-42 and HFCS-90. Many diet foods use HFCS-90, which contains 90% fructose, because of its high amount of sweetness. Sucrose or table sugar, contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose. That said, the makeup of table sugar and HFCS are not very different. It's possible the perceived issues with HFCS are less related to the composition of the sugar and more related to the amount that is used. Does that mean you're safe consuming HFCS? Probably not. However, these studies cannot be directly applied to the consumption of HFCS. So then, why the concern?

High Consumption of Sugar

The concern is not over what percentage of ones diet comes from fructose. It is the total amount of fructose in the diet. Estimates today say the average American consumes about 150 pounds of total sugar each year. The consumption of HFCS rose from less than one pound in 1970 to over sixty pounds per year in 2000. The increased use of HFCS comes from increased demands for sugar-containing products and its use in other food products. 

Part of the reason for the significant increase in use of HFCS is the low cost compared to sucrose. Because of the low prices, costs to consumers for products have decreased and the sizes of products have increased. More than likely, you're parents never had a super-sized soft drink when they went out to eat as kids. Because of low prices and increased appetites, we're consuming more total sugar than ever before. When you consider the amount of fructose consumed, whether it is from HFCS, sucrose, or other sweeteners, the total fructose amount for many people may be dangerously high.

Data from 2000 showed the daily average consumption of HFCS was just under 100 grams per day and total added sugars was just under 230 grams per day. That is 400 and 920 extra calories, respectively. Since this is an average number, it means many people consume amounts far higher. Some people reading this article consume almost no added sugar on a given day. That means someone else has to consume 460 grams of added sugar, or 1840 calories in a day to keep the averages the same. Over one-third of the population is obese and two-thirds is considered overweight. It's very possible eliminating unnecessary, added sugars could have a tremendous impact on our nation's health.

With the increasing rates of childhood obesity, there is some concern that the large amounts of fruit juices and soft drinks are major contributors to the obesity epidemic. Is this a result of HFCS alone? Probably not. As mentioned, fructose sweetened foods may not curb hunger. Children rarely think about serving sizes and calories. If children use juices and soft drinks as sources of hydration, they can easily consume an extra 300-500 calories, or more each day.

The Most Important Message

It is possible the focus has been so heavy on HFCS that we have lost site of the bigger picture of total sugar consumption. Total sugar consumed may be more of an issue than whether the sugar comes from HFCS. Replacing HFCS with alternatives such as sucrose, agave nectar, cane juice, or apple/pear concentrates may just change the name on the label without affecting what it is we actually consume. You can see, based on the chart below, some of the sugars that may replace HFCS will actually be higher in fructose than HFCS, especially if higher amounts have to be used to create the same taste profiles.



















Fructose % 55 48 50 50 55 53 65 74 74
Glucose % 45 52 50 50 45 47 35 26 26


*Glucose percentage may include a very small amount (1-3%) from lactose, maltose, and/or galactose

*Adapted from "Changing the Conversation about HFCS," referenced below.

As consumers turn away from the use of HFCS, it is critical to stay focused on the bigger issue, which is the unnecessary consumption of added sugars in the diet. From a metabolic standpoint, using HFCS, sucrose, invert sugar, honey or fruit juice concentrates can be seen as almost interchangeable. If HFCS is replaced by these kinds of sugars in similar amounts, it is not likely those foods or drinks would be any healthier for us. Some of these sugars, such as honey, are more nutritious in their raw, unprocessed form. However, that is not how they are normally found on the store shelf or in our foods.

In looking for healthy alternatives, be sure to do your homework. One sweetener that is showing up on shelves more and more is agave nectar. According to Sally Fallon, an expert in the industry, agave nectar is processed almost exactly the same as HFCS. Also, over 60% of the calories in apple juice, which is used on its own or as a base for other fruit juices, come from fructose. In fact, about two-thirds of all HFCS is consumed through beverages. The low costs of HFCS may have opened the door for us to rely on sugar as a more significant part of our diets. Switching to other sugar sources will not likely change the habits we've instilled into our lifestyle.


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This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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