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high fructose corn syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup: Saint or Sinner?

Article and audio introduction by Samantha Kennedy, Family and Consumer Sciences
high fructose corn syrup vs sugar

High fructose corn syrup is similar in composition to table sugar and is digested and metabolized in a similar way in the body. (Photo credit: Samantha Kennedy)

I was recently asked about whether high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was a “good” or “bad” ingredient. The simple answer is that it is not that simple. Let’s take a few moments to talk about this common nutritive sweetener.

Properties of High Fructose Corn Syrup

HFCS is a mixture of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. It has no artificial or synthetic ingredients. It is made from corn starch and is similar to sucrose (table sugar) in composition, which is why the two sweeteners are so comparable in taste and sweetness.

There are several types of HFCS, but HFCS-55 is the most common type found in foods and beverages, and has been deemed safe for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration.

HFCS has many properties that actually improve foods and beverages. Like sugar, it enhances the flavors of fruits and spices, extends product freshness, helps in the fermentation process, acts as a stabilizer, enhances cooked flavors, and promotes surface browning in baked goods. The fact that it is a liquid allows it to blend easily with other ingredients.

The four major nutritive sweeteners – sweeteners that contain calories – are sugar, honey, molasses, and high fructose corn syrup. As carbohydrates, all four contain 4 calories per gram or about 16 calories per teaspoon. They are all metabolized similarly in the body.

What does that mean? It means that since they all have similar chemical compositions, they are digested and broken down similarly in the body. Each are converted into the same basic nutrients (namely, glucose and fructose), which are then used as energy sources for other body functions.

What the Research Says

So, does HFCS contribute to diabetes and obesity? While some research has shown a link between the consumption of HFCS and a rise in obesity over the last 30 years, it is difficult to show conclusively that HFCS is the cause. On its own, HFCS has not been shown to be uniquely fattening.

Excess body fat occurs primarily when caloric intake does not balance with energy output.  In other words, when more calories are eaten than are burned off through exercise, the leftover calories are stored as fat in the body. Since all nutritive sweeteners contain calories, consuming an excess of any of them can lead to weight gain.

As for diabetes, the link to HFCS consumption is not direct. Obesity is definitely a risk factor for diabetes, so the key to reducing the risk for Type 2 diabetes is to maintain a healthier weight through diet and exercise. Part of a healthier diet is reducing consumption of added sugars and other nutritive sweeteners, including HFCS, so cutting back on sweetened beverages and desserts is always a good idea.

The bottom line here is that HFCS is a safe and inexpensive sweetener that shares many characteristics with both table sugar and honey. Since it is a carbohydrate, the body can use it as an energy source to fuel other functions. However, as with most things, moderation is key. Too much HFCS, like too much sugar, can contribute to excessive weight gain and other chronic diseases.

The American Dietetic Association, a professional association of dietitians, advises consumers that they can safely enjoy HFCS as part of an overall healthy diet plan that balances nutrient intake with moderate consumption of added sweeteners.

Learn more about fructose and HFCS in the UF/IFAS fact sheet “Facts about Fructose.”

For more information about HFCS or other sweeteners, please call Samantha at the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension office at (850) 926-3931.

Extension classes are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations.

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