Is high fructose corn syrup worse for me than regular sugar?

Q: Is high fructose corn syrup worse for me than regular sugar?

A: Great question.  First off, let’s define what we’re talking about.

Fructose and Glucose are simple sugars that are found naturally in foods.  Our bodies use them for energy. 

Sucrose (table sugar) is a natural sugar made from cane or beet plants that is composed of a 50/50 combination of fructose and glucose.  Our bodies break apart the fructose and glucose to use for energy.

Corn syrup is an ingredient used in many recipes because of its unique properties.  You might have seen it for sale in the baking aisle under the brand Karo Syrup.  Like table sugar, corn syrup is composed of fructose and glucose, but it’s relatively lower in fructose and higher in glucose so it’s not as sweet. 

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a processed form of corn syrup in which some of the glucose is converted to fructose, leading to a ratio of about 55% fructose to 45% glucose.  This higher amount of fructose results in a product that has the sweetness of table sugar and the cheapness and stability of corn syrup.  Great for the bottom line, not so great for our bottoms.    

Researchers noted that the alarming rise of obesity in America coincided with the increased use of HFCS by food manufacturers, which led many to blame HFCS for the problem.  But during that same time span, we started eating more calories in general; eating away from our homes more often; and getting a lot less exercise in our jobs and recreational activities.  All of these factors share some of the blame.

It is true that many foods that contain a lot of added sugar or HFCS usually don’t contain much else.  In other words, they are full of calories but very low in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber that fill you up and provide other health benefits.  So it is a good idea to avoid them, but it’s also important to remember a couple things:

  • Nutritionally speaking, there is no energy difference between any of the sugars.  For instance, even though honey is a ‘natural’ product, it is higher in fructose than HFCS.    
  • Weight loss always comes down to a simple, unbreakable rule – you need to take in fewer calories than you use.  Honey or HFCS, you’ll gain weight if you eat too much of it. 

Most health organizations agree that you should limit your added sugar consumption to about 10 teaspoons per day, which is about the amount contained in a typical 12-ounce can of soda.  Our advice?  Do your best to limit your caloric intake from added sweeteners; don’t be afraid to reach for veggies, fruit, and low fat dairy products; and burn off some of those calories with a healthy dose of daily exercise!

Cheryl Czapla, Med IV
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University

Greg Avellana RD, LD, CDE
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University