Sugar; found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sugar_2xmacro.jpg; photo by Lauri Andler.
High-fructose corn syrup is in everything nowadays; it’s used as a sweetener and an alternative to just table sugar in most foods. Many people are very concerned with the health of high-fructose corn syrup, especially because it is most often found in high levels in processed foods. However, is it really as bad as some people think?
Sucrose is the sugar that most people interact with; it’s table sugar, but it is also in maple syrup, cane sugar, and beet sugar, the most common sweeteners besides high fructose corn syrup. Sucrose is made up of a molecule of glucose bound to a molecule of fructose (both of which are individual sugar units). When this sugar is ingested, it is subsequently broken down into the individual units of fructose and glucose to be taken up in fat storage or used as energy.
While fructose and glucose are both sugar units, they are used by the body in different ways. Glucose is broken down by the body in many different ways, including generating ATP, the energy of the body. However, fructose is only broken down in the liver. Therefore, when the liver receives more fructose than it needs, it automatically stores that all into fat, and a buildup of too much fat can be bad for you. There also has been some research done into how the body determines when it has to much fat; it turns out that fructose, unlike glucose, does not stimulate the parts of the body that tells you when you have had too much sugar or too little sugar. This makes it far easier to eat too much. So, it is definitely true that too much fructose can be bad for you.
High Fructose Corn Syrup – Any Different From Other Sweeteners?
However, it is not true that high fructose corn syrup is pure fructose.
Common table sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. high fructose corn syrup varies in its concentration of fructose – HFCS 42 is 42% fructose and HFCS 55 is 55% fructose, neither of which are extremely different from regular sucrose. And, even though HCFS 55 contains more fructose than table sugar does, since it is far sweeter than table sugar, manufacturers use less. In fact, this was the motivation for developing high fructose corn syrup in the first place; sweeter sugar means they can use less of it and save money. It is not clear whether they use little enough sugar to offset the extra fructose, but at best it would be a minimal difference if you ingest the same amount of high fructose corn syrup and table sugar.
Table of sweetness; Found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Relativesweetness.png
Are natural sweeteners better?
Many people have started using honey or agave nectar as better alternatives to regular sugar. Honey actually has 50% fructose and cooked agave (according to the USDA) is 87% fructose (although this is disputed, some claim it is 70%). Fruit juices are also high in fructose, with the sugar in pears being 64% fructose and the sugar in apples being 57% fructose. Now, this is not to say that fruit or natural sweeteners are bad for you – fruit has a lot of good nutrients and fiber and in moderation it is extremely good for you. However, it isn’t necessarily true that these alternatives are “healthier” than regular table sugar in their levels of fructose and glucose.
So why are people concerned about high fructose corn syrup?
Because it is in everything, even things that don’t necessarily need a lot of sugar, like bread. This has more to do with society’s extreme sweet tooth than high fructose corn syrup itself, but it is important to watch how much sugar (be it table sugar, honey, or high fructose corn syrup) you intake to make sure you don’t have too much. However, high fructose corn syrup itself is not much worse for you than any other “natural” sweetener, in moderation.