Is high fructose corn syrup worse than sugar?

Not a week goes by in the media without stories about potential health problems associated with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). From brands like Yoplait to Heinz and Hunt’s, consumers are asking for the removal of the ingredient from products and companies are responding.

However, what do you really know about HFCS? Is it the main culprit when it comes to weight gain and metabolic problems or is there more to the story? In order to tackle this subject, let’s first look at HFCS and sugar at the molecular level.

Up close and personal: HFCS and sugar

Time for a little biochemistry: The kind of HFCS used in packaged foods and soda goes by the names HFCS 55 and HFCS 42. In the 55 variant, 55% of molecules are fructose and 42% are glucose. For HFCS 42, the breakdown is 42% fructose and 53% glucose. Both fructose and glucose are basic, simple forms of carbohydrates.

At the molecular level, high fructose corn syrup and sugar are nearly identical Click To Tweet

Why did I provide that molecular breakdown? Sucrose or sugar often replaces HFCS when brands swap ingredients and guess what? It has a 1:1 ratio of glucose to fructose, meaning that 50% of the molecules are fructose and 50% are glucose. At the molecular level, HFCS and sugar are nearly identical.

sucrose
This image shows the molecular layout of sucrose or sugar. 50% of it is fructose and 50% is glucose, making it a near mirror molecular image of high fructose corn syrup.

Research roundup: HFCS vs. sugar

Given that HFCS and sugar have a very similar glucose-to-fructose ratio, what does the nutritional literature have to say about the health effects of HFCS?

According to a 2008 study, “Sucrose and HFCS do not have substantially different short-term endocrine/metabolic effects.” Even when looking at other critical factors like appetite- and fat-related hormones, no difference has been found between sugar and HFCS.

A 2012 study that put subjects on a reduced-calorie diet noted that both the HFCS and sugar group lost similar amounts of weight and body fat, leading researchers to conclude the type of sugar in the diet was of no significance.

All these results are similar to a 2007 critical review in Food Science and Nutrition, which summed up its research saying, “The currently available evidence is insufficient to implicate HFCS per se as a causal factor in the overweight and obesity problem in the United States.”

The real nutritional culprit: excess carbohydrates

It may seem like I’m letting HFCS and sugar off the hook, but I’m not. What’s important to realize is that they’re both carbohydrates and because of their connection to “sweetness,” they shift the conversation away from something people need to be more aware of when it comes to their diet: too many carbohydrates elevates blood sugar.

Note how sugar consumption ramped up  in the early '70s. While sweetener choice has changed with time, one aspect has remained constant: Americans are eating more simple carbohydrates.
Note how sugar consumption ramped up in the early ’70s. While sweetener choice has changed with time, one aspect has remained constant: Americans are eating more simple carbohydrates. Image source: Austin G. Davis-Richardson (Wikipedia)

A diet composed of too many insulin-spiking carbohydrates has been implicated in the following health problems:

Too many insulin-spiking carbohydrates may lead to heart disease, diabetes and macular degeneration Click To Tweet

Making healthier choices

Elimination of foods containing HFCS is a great start to revamping one’s diet as HFCS is typically found in processed foods that contain artificial ingredients, little nutrient density, low fiber counts and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

But don’t be misled: eating the same amount of a food that uses sugar or a similar sweetener in the place of HFCS won’t lead to significant improvements in your health.

Instead, shop the perimeter of the grocery store, stocking up on fibrous fruits and vegetables like berries, avocados and broccoli, and protein sources like wild-caught salmon and grass-fed beef. It’s all about increasing the nutrient density of your food choices and being a more aware consumer.

Reviewed by Kristen Kizer, R.D.
Jason Lauritzen

Jason Lauritzen

Social Media Program Manager at Houston Methodist
Prior to joining Houston Methodist, Jason worked in digital marketing, journalism and manufacturing.
Jason Lauritzen

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Jason Lauritzen

Prior to joining Houston Methodist, Jason worked in digital marketing, journalism and manufacturing.