Q. Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for you?
Joyce Hendley, M.S.,
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.