2. “High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is worse for you than sugar.”
Though consumers who fill their shopping carts with products labeled “No HFCS” might feel otherwise, the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is any more harmful to your health than sugar is “one of those urban myths that sounds right but is basically wrong,” according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition and health advocacy group.
High-fructose corn syrup was created to mimic sucrose (table sugar), so its composition is almost identical to sucrose’s (55 percent fructose, 45 percent glucose; with sucrose the ratio is 50:50). Calorie-wise, it’s a dead ringer for sucrose. And in studies that compare the effects of HFCS with other sweeteners, HFCS and sucrose have very similar effects on blood levels of insulin, glucose, triglycerides and satiety hormones. In short, it seems to be no worse—but also no better—than sucrose, or table sugar.
“The debate about HFCS and sucrose [table sugar] is taking the focus off the more important question,” says Kimber Stanhope, Ph.D., R.D., a researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the sweetener extensively. “What we should be asking is ‘What are the effects of all sugars (HFCS and sucrose) in the diet?’”
Epidemiologic studies show that consuming large amounts of added sweeteners—primarily in sodas and other sweetened drinks—is associated with greater risk of fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And it’s not just the extra calories they provide that may be hurting us; research by Stanhope and others suggests that fructose itself in added sugars may be hazardous to our health too. One problem is that our bodies weren’t designed to handle a large amount of fructose at a time, she notes, because we wouldn’t have come across it in our food supply. “If you look at what nature provided for humans to eat, we only had fructose in whole fruit, in amounts that are relatively dilute.” Problems arose when we learned how to turn foods—which contain fiber, water and other nutrients—into pure sources of sugars (e.g., refining sugarcane into table sugar).
But the associations between sweetener consumption and disease don’t implicate just HFCS, which despite its name contains only a little more fructose than sucrose does, Stanhope emphasizes. It’s the sheer amount of the sweet stuff we consume that matters or, to put it another way, it’s the dose that is the problem. Too much honey, agave syrup or dehydrated cane juice would likely cause the same health problems.
“The American Heart Association recently recommended that women consume no more than 100 calories a day in added sugars [6 teaspoons]; men, 150 calories [9 teaspoons],” Stanhope notes. Our current intake, however, hovers around 355 calories per day. “The U.S. population isn’t anywhere close to [the AHA’s] goal.”