High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been linked to several health issue, including type 2 diabetes and obesity. So what exactly is HFCS and how does it compare to other sweeteners in terms of its effects on our health?
What Is HFCS?
Chemically speaking, sucrose or plain table sugar is one part glucose—the simplest sugar that is a component in many carbohydrates—and one part fructose or fruit sugar. Therefore, sucrose is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. This is very similar to the chemical composition of honey (48 percent glucose/52 percent fructose). Corn syrup, a liquid sweetener made from cornstarch, can vary in composition depending on the brand. HFCS, a modified version of standard corn syrup, is similar in chemical composition to table sugar and honey with two forms: HFCS-42 (58 percent glucose/42 percent fructose) and HFCS-55 (45 percent glucose/55 percent fructose).
Why Is HFCS Used in Place of Table Sugar?
HFCS utilization began to take off in the 1970s as a replacement for table sugar made from sugar cane (or sugar beets). Manufacturers in the United States started using HFCS in foods for several reasons. First, sugar cane is often grown in other areas of the world, so prices could vary based on climate changes or politics. Second, corn is an abundant crop in the U.S. and can readily be used to create HFCS. Lastly, because it is a liquid form of sweetener, HFCS can be easily transported, stored and used in the processing of various foods. Soda is the most common product that contains HFCS and is frequently cited by the media. Sucrose was the primary sweetener of choice in many products prior to the 1970s. However, after the introduction of HFCS into the American diet, the consumption of sodas, as well as other sweetened products, increased overall (Fitch and Keim, 2012).
The media has implicated HFCS as a potential contributor to the U.S. obesity epidemic (White, 2008; Zeratsky, 2005). These inferences have been drawn from studies that show Americans have more than doubled their intake of HFCS over the past 50 years, as this sweetening agent has slowly replaced traditional sucrose in a number of processed foods (White, 2008). In the same time period, the total number of calories consumed from just sugar has also doubled to approximately 400 calories per day. Recommendations from the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest that this level is too high, and that daily sugar intake should be no more than 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men (Fitch and Keim, 2012; Zeratsky, 2005).
It is worth noting that both the consumption of HFCS and the total daily calories in the American diet have increased. Excess in anything, including different forms of sweeteners, can contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle and medical complications such as obesity.
Fitch, C. and Keim, K.S. (2012). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 112, 739-758.
Laidler, J. (2014). Comparing Sweeteners. SweetSurprise.com.
White, J. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain’t. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88, 1716s-1721s.
Zeratsky, K. (2005). What is high-fructose corn syrup? What are the health concerns? Mayo Clinic.