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Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
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High-fructose Corn Syrup: Facts and Fallacies

Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Feb 19, 2015

If you pay attention to what the media or public says or writes, you would think that dietary high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the worst villain since Attila the Hun. Although HFCS has been branded by many as a major culprit in the U.S. obesity epidemic, does science really support this view? Let’s take an objective look.

HFCS is a liquid sweetener that is used in many foods and beverages, and is often used as an alternative to sucrose (table sugar). The use of HFCS in foods and beverages began in the late 1960s and its use has increased substantially since that time. The food industry embraced the use of HFCS instead of sucrose for many reasons. First, because HFCS is a liquid, it does not need to be dissolved in water like sucrose does. Because sucrose is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets that are grown primarily in equatorial areas, the price and availability of sucrose can change greatly with political and climatic instability. Since HFCS is derived from corn, which is abundantly available in the U.S., its price and availability are not subject to the same fluctuations as sucrose1.

There is much misperception about the composition of HFCS, and some have confused HFCS with common corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar). As you will see in Table 1, corn syrup is 100% glucose. Of note, there is not much difference at all in the composition of HFCS versus sucrose. While sucrose is composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose, HFCS is 45% glucose and 55% fructose1. The term ‘high-fructose’ corn syrup is actually very misleading; use of this term results in people assuming that HFCS has a very high fructose content, when in fact it is only slightly lower in glucose and slightly higher in fructose than sucrose! Keep in mind that all dietary sugars have four calories per gram; thus corn syrup, sucrose, HFCS, and honey all contain an identical number of calories per gram.

In 2010, Bray2 proposed that HFCS is a direct cause of obesity. There is no question that as HFCS use increased in the U.S. there was a corresponding increase in the prevalence of obesity (at least for a time). In other words, there is an association between the two, though association does not always mean cause and effect. The more important question is whether or not HFCS by itself is the culprit, or the simple fact that Americans are currently consuming more calories per day than in previous decades. So, let’s try to put things into better perspective.

Between the years 1971 and 2005 per capita daily caloric intake for American adults increased from 2150 calories to 2700 calories, which translates into a 25% increase in daily calories consumed. Given the fact that only 18% of U.S. adults currently meet the minimal public health guidelines for physical activity, it’s safe to say that most adults have not countered this calorie increase by also increasing their daily caloric expenditure by 25%.

Despite public perception, scientists have not found anything unique about HFCS that would cause it to be any more obesity-promoting than any other sweetener. Interestingly, while the rates of obesity in the U.S. have increased from 15.6%, 19.8%, 23.7%, and ~30% for 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010, respectively, per capita intake of HFCS in the U.S. has remained steady since about 2000.

So, what’s the bottom line? First, foods and beverages with high added simple sugar content (non-diet sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, cakes, candies, pastries, etc.) offer very little in the way of nutrient or fiber value. Few would question the recommendation that Americans should cut down on their intake of these types of products in order to decrease intake of empty calories. However, despite any outcry by the public and the media, there is little or no evidence that HFCS is any worse health-wise than any other sweetener. To achieve and maintain long-term weight control, the old advice that you should cut back on empty calories and increase physical activity level still holds true. Keep in mind that empty calories are not just found in products with lots of added sugars, but in products with high levels of saturated fat, trans fat, and alcohol as well.

 

Table 1. Carbohydrate composition of four common sweeteners.

Glucose

Fructose

Other

Corn Syrup

100%

0%

0%

Sucrose

50%

50%

0%

High-fructose Corn Syrup

45%

55%

0%

Honey

49%

43%

~6%

To learn more about obesity, physical activity, healthy eating and risk of chronic disease take our Nutrition for Health and Fitness (NHF) and/or Personal Training Education (PTE) courses. You don’t have to be a health and fitness professional to take these courses; the general public is always welcome!

 

References

1. White JS. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 88(supplement):1716S-1721S.

2. Bray GA. (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79:537-543.