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Q. Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for you?

By Joyce Hendley, September/October 2007

Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for you?

A. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a manmade sweetener that’s found in a wide range of processed foods, from ketchup and cereals to crackers and salad dressings. It also sweetens just about all of the (regular) soda Americans drink. HFCS used in foods is between 50 to 55 percent fructose—so chemically, it’s virtually identical to table sugar (sucrose), which is 50 percent fructose. Metabolic studies suggest our bodies break down and use HFCS and sucrose the same way.

Yet, after HFCS began to be widely introduced into the food supply 30-odd years ago, obesity rates skyrocketed. And because the sweetener is so ubiquitous, many blame HFCS for playing a major role in our national obesity epidemic. As a result, some shoppers equate HFCS with “toxic waste” when they see it on a food label. But when it comes right down to it, a sugar is a sugar is a sugar. A can of soda contains around nine teaspoons of sugar in the form of HFCS—but, from a biochemical standpoint, drinking that soda is no worse for you than sipping home-brewed iced tea that you’ve doctored with nine teaspoons of table sugar or an equivalent amount of honey.

Even Barry Popkin, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who previously suggested, in an influential 2004 paper, a possible HFCS-obesity link, stresses that the real obesity problem doesn’t lie just with HFCS. Rather, it’s the fact that sugars from all sources have become so prevalent in our food supply, especially in our beverages. He scoffs at the “natural” sweeteners sometimes added to upscale processed foods like organic crackers and salad dressings. “They all have the same caloric effects as sugar,” he explains. “I don’t care whether something contains concentrated fruit juice, brown sugar, honey or HFCS. The only better sweetener option is ‘none of the above.’”

At EatingWell, it’s our philosophy to keep any sweeteners we use in our recipes to a minimum—and likewise, to limit processed foods with added sugars of any type, including HFCS. We recommend you do the same.

Did you know?

The corn syrup found on supermarket shelves is only a distant cousin to the high-fructose corn syrup used commercially. Both start by processing corn starch with enzymes and/or acids, but the HFCS process is much more complex and results in a different chemical structure.

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COMMENTS POSTEDsort icon

So many incredibly intelligent people post on articles like this with their expansive knowledge of science and the structures of molecules. Everybody should listen to what everybody else on this comment thread has to say. I do believe that almost all, if not every single one, have advanced degrees in chemical engineering and chemistry related fields.

Sure, it's true that HFCS is just glucose and fructose. Glucose + fructose = HFCS. Glucose + fructose = table sugar. The difference? HFCS has slightly more fructose than glucose to make it sweeter. The catch? That extra few percent of fructose is making us all fat, making us have man boobs, giving us cancer, destroying the ozone, emitting CO2 into the atmosphere to increase the effects of global warming, and I do believe that HFCS is also the culprit in dangerous gamma ray bursts from the sun.

Anonymous

03/27/2013 - 12:21pm

i feel that there is something wrong with this simplified view of fructose and/or HFCS ...it's the wrong conclusion ...maybe HFCS really is bad, but it's not because of the reasons they (and most of the comments here) come up with..... if HFCS is bad because of the fructose ratio, then apples is dangerous junkfood, OMG, ban apples! they have a pretty high ratio of fructose glucose.... fructose is not that bad, it's the processing perhaps, not the fructose itself.... if i go on an applejuice diet and end up with some disease, it will not be because of the fructose content ............anyway, maybe in future with nano-technology there will be some easy way of just adding some chemical that will convert fructose (or some other specific sugar) into oxygen or water, without creating alcohol or acids ...remove the fructose from applejuice and it must be super healthy juice then... i will probably do it, just to be sure... the humans evolved the fruits into sugar bombs they wasn't supose to be in nature.. so perhaps it is kinda "dangerous" with too much sugar, even tho' it's the main fuel for the human body, and the reason why evolution made us like sugar. because it's good to find sugery fruits in nature..

Anonymous

03/29/2013 - 7:54am

To me, the link between the drastic increases in obesity and diabetes is not because of the health concerns, rather because of costs. HFCS is radically cheaper to produce and use than normal cane sugar. This allows the costs of things like soda, candy, chips etc. to be greatly reduced. Now here's where the connection starts. We live in a society where people pick up a soda over a bottle of water, why? Because it's cheaper. We have generations of people living below the poverty line that cannot afford fruits and vegetables so they choose to hit places like McDonald's or other fast food establishments. HFCS is not evil, it's science. However, science has made it possible to but out natural sweeteners because they are simply more expensive. Our battle with these health related issues begins with teaching people that yes, you might be saving a couple bucks here and there when buying food, but in 15 20 years, when you are suffering from health complications and medical bills are piling up, you'll wish you had spent the little extra then to save you literally thousands later.

Anonymous

04/02/2013 - 12:09pm

I think people are missing the point. We all make choices when it comes to puting food in our mouth. When you put regular sugar in your mouth nerve impulses signal to your brain that you have consumed sugar. After a short period of time your brain says enough. NOW with HCFS there is no signal and the brain does not recognize the sweetness. Which is the reason why people consume to much. Moderation is the key to living long and healthy. I know my grandpa lived to 94 YEARS OLD. His experience speaks louder than words. Moderation.

Anonymous

04/04/2013 - 1:40pm

Many previous comments appear to reflect opinions based on...well, opinions...rather than factual evidence. Several statements imply the posters have swallowed a fair amount of hysterical propaganda in addition to the excess quantities of sugar we can agree are present in many products. My plea to those invidivduals: Please stop ignoring that there is NO EVIDENCE high fructose corn syrup/sugar has a different impact on the human metabolism than "real" sugar, and cease propogating unsubtantiated conclusions.

Anonymous

05/08/2013 - 3:34pm

One of the principal arguments food corporations have used to defend high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is that it is chemically similar to table sugar.
Manufacturers have stated repeatedly that HFCS contains at most 55 percent fructose, little different from white sugar's 50 percent fructose makeup.
But as it turns out, the specific amount of fructose in HFCS for any particular food product has never been officially tested. And when researchers tested brand-name sodas, they found that the fructose content is actually 65 percent.
"Why is this important?
It's because research has shown fructose to be particularly harmful to human health. Unlike excess glucose, which passes through our digestive tract and is excreted, 100 percent of fructose that's consumed is taken up by the liver. Once there, fructose causes increased fat deposition in the abdominal cavity and increased blood levels of triglycerides -- both of which are risk factors for heart disease and diabetes."

Glucose and fructose are both simple sugars, but scientists have long suspected there are differences in the way your body processes them.
In a new study, researchers scanned the brains of nine subjects after they got an infusion of equal volumes of glucose, fructose or saline. The brain scans were looking at activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain which plays a key role in setting appetite levels and controlling production of metabolic hormones.
According to the Chicago Tribune:
“The researchers ... found that ‘cortical control areas’ -- broad swaths of gray matter that surrounded the hypothalamus -- responded quite differently to the infusion of fructose than they did to glucose. Across the limited regions of the brain they scanned ... glucose significantly raised the level of neural activity for about 20 minutes following the infusion. Fructose had the opposite effect, causing activity in the same areas to drop and stay low for 20 minutes after the infusion.”
Sources:
Chicago Tribune February 10, 2011
Diabetes, Obesity, and Metabolism March 2011; 13(3): 229-234

People everywhere are finally waking up to the indisputable fact that all simple sugars are not the same when it comes to the physical end results they create. The latest Public Service Announcement warning New Yorkers about the dangers of excessive soda consumption is a powerful illustration of this increasing level of awareness.
When these differences are understood, it's easy to see how and why fructose—mainly in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—is in large part responsible for the meteoric rise of obesity and its related health problems.
It's a staple ingredient in a vast majority of sweetened beverages and processed foods of all kinds, from pre-packaged meals to baked goods and condiments. And the number one source of calories in America is soda, in the form of HFCS!
Your Brain Reacts to Fructose and Glucose in Very Different Ways
This latest study is intriguing, as it shows that the difference between fructose and glucose is not just limited to how they're metabolized in your body; your brain also reacts to these two sugars in entirely different ways.
Nine healthy, normal-weight subjects received either glucose, fructose, or saline (as the control). Their brains were then scanned to evaluate activity around the hypothalamus, which is a key player in appetite control and production of metabolic hormones.
Interestingly, the researchers discovered that the "cortical control areas" surrounding the hypothalamus responded very differently to each substance:
• Glucose significantly raised the level of neural activity for about 20 minutes
• Fructose reduced neural activity in the area for about the same amount of time
• Saline had no effect on neural activity
So, what does this mean?
At this point, the implications of these differences are unclear. The Chicago Tribune reported that:
"At this point, said [lead researcher] Purnell in a phone interview, it means nothing more than that the two substances did prompt different responses in the brain--that the brain did not respond to them identically.
Within some of the "cortical control areas" where differences were seen, lie some important neural real estate, including regions where notions of reward and addiction are processed.
As scientists have a closer look in future studies, they should be able to zero in on which specific areas are affected differently by the two forms of sugar."
So, time will tell what these latest findings really mean, but we already know that fructose has a detrimental impact on two hormones involved with satiety and hunger, namely leptin and ghrelin, and that this influence sets in motion a vicious cycle of hunger, increased food intake, and increased fat storage.
Fructose Packs on the Pounds Faster than Any Other Nutrient
Part of what makes HFCS so unhealthy is that it is metabolized to fat in your body far more rapidly than any other sugar. The entire burden of metabolizing fructose falls on your liver, and it promotes a particularly dangerous kind of body fat, namely adipose fat. This is the fat type of fat that collects in your abdominal region and is associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
Additionally, because most fructose is consumed in liquid form (i.e. soda and sweetened beverages of all kinds), its negative metabolic effects are magnified. Because while HFCS has about the same amount of fructose as cane sugar, the fructose in HFCS is in its "free" form and not attached to any other carbs.
The fructose in fruits and in cane sugar is bonded to other sugars which results in a decrease in its metabolic toxicity.
Consuming foods that contain high amounts of fructose—even if it's a natural product—is, to put it bluntly, the fastest way to trash your health. Among the health problems you invite with a high-fructose diet are:
• Obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
• Elevated triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
• Elevated blood pressure
• Liver disease
• Depletion of vitamins and minerals—Unbound fructose, found in large quantities in HFCS, can interfere with your heart's use of minerals such as magnesium, copper and chromium.
• Cardiovascular disease, arthritis, gout, and cancer
Adding insult to injury, HFCS is most often made from genetically modified (GM) corn, which is fraught with its own well documented side effects and health concerns, from an increased risk of developing food allergies to the risk of increased infertility in future generations.
Beware: Mixing Fructose with Glucose Increases Destructive Effect
Fructose consumption clearly causes insulin resistance whereas straight glucose does not. However, it's worth knowing that glucose accelerates fructose absorption! So when you mix glucose and fructose together, you absorb more fructose than if you consumed fructose alone...
This is an important piece of information if you are struggling to control your weight.
Remember, sucrose, or table sugar, is exactly this blend -- fructose plus glucose. So, the key to remember is to not get too nit-picky about the names of the sugars. ALL of these contribute to decreased health:
• Sucrose (table sugar)
• Corn syrup
• High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
• Crystalline fructose, and any other high-fructose sweetener they may dream up
• Natural fructose in the form of fruits, fruit juices, and natural sweeteners such as honey and agave.
Is Fructose from HFCS Worse than Fructose from Table Sugar?
High fructose corn syrup is about 55 percent fructose while table sugar is about 50 percent. The fructose in the corn syrup is also dissociated from the glucose, unlike table sugar which has it attached. So HFCS is clearly worse than table sugar, but not orders of magnitude. It is only marginally worse.
The MAIN reason why fructose and HFCS are so bad is that in the mid 70s two things happened. Earl Butz changed the US Agriculture policy to massively subsidize corn production in the US, and scientists also figured out how to make HFCS in the lab from corn.
The combination of these two events made fructose VERY cheap. So cheap that it's put in virtually all processed foods because it is virtually free and massively improves the flavor of most foods. So if you are a processed food producer there are virtually no downsides.
So it becomes a QUANTITY issue, and the average person is now consuming 600 percent more than their ancestors did, and some are consuming 1500 percent more. So the massive increase in this toxin is what is causing the problem. If table sugar was as cheap and used as much it would cause virtually identical side effects.
Fructose Metabolism Basics
Without getting into the very complex biochemistry of carbohydrate metabolism, it is important to understand how your body processes glucose versus fructose. Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, has been a pioneer in decoding sugar metabolism. His work has highlighted some major differences in how different sugars are broken down and used.
Here's a summary of the main points:
• After eating fructose, 100 percent of the metabolic burden rests on your liver. With glucose, your liver has to break down only 20 percent.
• Every cell in your body, including your brain, utilizes glucose. Therefore, much of it is "burned up" immediately after you consume it. By contrast, fructose is turned into free fatty acids (FFAs), VLDL (the damaging form of cholesterol), and triglycerides, which get stored as fat.
• The fatty acids created during fructose metabolism accumulate as fat droplets in your liver and skeletal muscle tissues, causing insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Insulin resistance progresses to metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes.
• Fructose is the most lipophilic carbohydrate. In other words, fructose converts to activated glycerol (g-3-p), which is directly used to turn FFAs into triglycerides. The more g-3-p you have, the more fat you store. Glucose does not do this.
• When you eat 120 calories of glucose, less than one calorie is stored as fat. 120 calories of fructose results in 40 calories being stored as fat. Consuming fructose is essentially consuming fat!
• The metabolism of fructose by your liver creates a long list of waste products and toxins, including a large amount of uric acid, which drives up blood pressure and causes gout.
• Glucose suppresses the hunger hormone ghrelin and stimulates leptin, which suppresses your appetite. Fructose has no effect on ghrelin and interferes with your brain's communication with leptin, resulting in overeating.
So, if anyone tries to tell you "sugar is sugar," they are way behind the times. As you can see, there are major differences in how your body processes each one. The bottom line is: fructose leads to increased belly fat, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome -- not to mention the long list of chronic diseases that directly result.
If you, like so many others, have struggled with your weight for years; examined your diet; avoided fat and counted your calories, yet not getting anywhere and wondering what you're doing wrong, please pay very close attention to this issue!
In many cases the primary culprit is an excessive intake of hidden sugar in the form of fructose, whether natural fructose (such as agave syrup or 100 percent fruit juice, for example), or in the form of corn syrup (or high fructose corn syrup), which is a main ingredient in countless beverages and processed, pre-packaged foods.
It's extremely easy to consume high amounts of fructose on a daily basis, especially if most of your foods are processed in any way, or if you drink sodas or any other sweetened beverages such as ice-teas, fruit juices and sports drinks. As previously discussed, even seemingly "health-conscious" beverages like Vitamin Water, Jamba Juice and Odwalla SuperFood contain far more added sugar and/or fructose than many desserts!
So please, understand that it's not dietary fat that's making you fat. It's fructose.
My Recommended Fructose Allowance
As a standard recommendation, I strongly advise keeping your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day.
For most people it would also be wise to limit your fructose from fruit to 15 grams or less, as you're virtually guaranteed to consume "hidden" sources of fructose if you drink beverages other than water and eat processed food. Remember, the average 12-ounce can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar, at least half of which is fructose, so one can of soda ALONE would exceed your daily allotment.
Fifteen grams of fructose is not much -- it represents two bananas, one-third cup of raisins, or two Medjool dates. In his book, The Sugar Fix, Dr. Johnson includes detailed tables showing the content of fructose in different foods -- an information base that isn't readily available when you're trying to find out exactly how much fructose is in various foods. I encourage you to pick up a copy of this excellent resource.
Here's a quick reference list of some of the most common fruits that you can use to help you count your fructose grams:
Fruit Serving Size Grams of Fructose
Limes 1 medium 0
Lemons 1 medium 0.6
Cranberries 1 cup 0.7
Passion fruit 1 medium 0.9
Prune 1 medium 1.2
Apricot 1 medium 1.3
Guava 2 medium 2.2
Date (Deglet Noor style) 1 medium 2.6
Cantaloupe 1/8 of med. melon 2.8
Raspberries 1 cup 3.0
Clementine 1 medium 3.4
Kiwifruit 1 medium 3.4
Blackberries 1 cup 3.5
Star fruit 1 medium 3.6
Cherries, sweet 10 3.8
Strawberries 1 cup 3.8
Cherries, sour 1 cup 4.0
Pineapple 1 slice
(3.5" x .75") 4.0
Grapefruit, pink or red 1/2 medium 4.3
Fruit Serving Size Grams of Fructose
Boysenberries 1 cup 4.6
Tangerine/mandarin orange 1 medium 4.8
Nectarine 1 medium 5.4
Peach 1 medium 5.9
Orange (navel) 1 medium 6.1
Papaya 1/2 medium 6.3
Honeydew 1/8 of med. melon 6.7
Banana 1 medium 7.1
Blueberries 1 cup 7.4
Date (Medjool) 1 medium 7.7
Apple (composite) 1 medium 9.5
Persimmon 1 medium 10.6
Watermelon 1/16 med. melon 11.3
Pear 1 medium 11.8
Raisins 1/4 cup 12.3
Grapes, seedless (green or red) 1 cup 12.4
Mango 1/2 medium 16.2
Apricots, dried 1 cup 16.4
Figs, dried 1 cup 23.0

The Way Toward Better Health Begins Here...
There is nothing benign about the fructose consumption inherent in our modern diet. It is literally supercharged with fructose, and we're seeing the consequences of this type of eating in our skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cases of non-fatty liver disease.
Fortunately, there's plenty of good news here.
There IS a way out of this evil circle, and that is a return to a more holistic diet based on whole foods, along with physical exercise and safe sun exposure to optimize your vitamin D levels.
One of the easiest things you can do to quickly improve your health is to eliminate all soda and sweetened beverages from your life. I say ALL soda, because even though HFCS is clearly something you want to avoid, it is still not as bad as artificial sweeteners, which damage your health even more rapidly than HFCS.
Then, since most processed foods also contain HFCS, avoiding as many processed foods as possible is your next step.
If you want an occasional sweetener, I recommend using:
1. The herb stevia
2. Dextrose (pure glucose)
I do not recommend agave syrup since it is a highly processed sap that is almost all fructose. It is one of the more seriously mismarketed foods in the natural food world. We actually did an informal study and found the most popular agave brands ranged from 59 to 67 percent pure fructose, far worse than HFCS.
Once you realize the hazards of fructose and begin to avoid it in earnest, your diet will significantly improve, which is an essential factor for a long, healthy life.

Dan

Anonymous

05/24/2013 - 7:08am

"But when it comes right down to it, a sugar is a sugar is a sugar. "

This is simply not true and there is scientific evidence out there to prove it comparing the effects of fructose vs glucose on insulin responses. Fructose stimulates a much stronger insulin response. It also seems that something about fructose with a large meal stimulates fat storage much more than normal glucose does. All the results make sense with the outcomes of diabetes and obesity being correlated to fructose over consumption as a result of it being put into everything.

Anonymous

05/30/2013 - 9:40pm

Thank you for the very well-written and to-the-point answer! It's great to find this bit of wisdom in the sea of exaggeration and misinformation. The key is to avoid excess sugar in any form. And especially avoid sweetened drinks, because our body doesn't register fullness from calories consumed in beverages the same way as it does calories consumed as solids.

Now that's not to say that HFCS is not bad. The energy cost to produce it is high, yet government subsidies make it artificially inexpensive. Because it's inexpensive, it is added to many foods (mostly highly processed foods), which are therefore also artificially inexpensive.

People seem to have the right instinct—HFCS is Bad—but their stated reasons for their opinions are largely nonsense. Since the nonsense that's being batted about is leading people down the right path (don't consume HFCS), maybe I shouldn't worry about it. But I'd like to see people hone their critical thinking skills, and maybe even learn to go to the primary literature and see what the data says.

Anonymous

06/14/2013 - 3:18pm

In Australia we use sugar not corn syrup. We still have a major obesity problem. I dont know which is more dangerous in excess but arguably the end result is similar. Frank Qld.

Anonymous

07/09/2013 - 4:23pm

I never really drank soda, or had fast food, until I moved back to the US. My yearly medically always came back great, then I started fast food lunches, and lots of soda well it wasn't long before I started feeling the effects, with weight, I had never been over 195lb no matter what I ate, large breakfast's, big healthy lunches, and a good sized dinners, I started eating less yet gaining weight, the the heart attack.

I cannot say it was due to HFCS, but it seems likely.

Anonymous

07/24/2013 - 8:20pm

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