24 July 2009

You've probably heard of high fructose corn syrup. But is it good? Is it bad? What exactly is it? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener that is made from corn. Just read a few food labels and you're bound to find it in the ingredients list. Now you're hearing good things about it after years of hearing bad things about it. So, what's the deal?

The Controversy    For the last several years, some health experts and consumer groups have been blaming high fructose corn syrup for the rise in obesity and diabetes claiming that it's far worse for you than regular old sugar. Some groups even called for a ban on high fructose corn syrup. But many researchers say "not so fast". Doctors from the American Medical Association (AMA) announced last week that scientific research so far shows that HFCS is not any worse than sugar. Producers of the sweet stuff took that statement as a seal of approval. In fact, the Corn Refiners Association added the AMA's statement to their commercials and ads. You may have noticed new ads that show people enjoying popsicles and fruit drinks sweetened with HFCS and talking about how wonderful it is.

The Research   Why did people claim it was bad in the first place? American food companies started using more HFCS around the same time that American obesity rates skyrocketed. But that does not mean that the HCFS caused that rise. HFCS has the same number of calories as sugar so simply eating more of it could add up to more obesity. Still, some people claimed that HFCS was turned into fat more easily than sugar. But at least for now, the research tells us that too much sugar or HFCS will make you gain weight. One is not more fattening than the other.

Why Food Companies Use HFCS   Why do food companies use high fructose corn syrup? It's cheap, it's American, and most importantly, it's sweet. Americans do make some sugar from sugar cane and beets. We also get some of our sugar from other countries. But we grow a lot of corn here, making it easy and cheap to refine that corn into corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is higher in fructose - as the name suggests. The fructose makes it sweeter - something that food manufacturers like.

The Bottom Line  Cutting back on all added caloric sweeteners is a good idea. You don't need to cut them out, just cut back for better health. Most nutrition experts advise people to limit added sugar to fewer than 10% of your day's calories. That ends up around 50 grams of added sugar a day for most people. Added sugars do not include the natural sugars in fruit juice, fruit, and milk. Here are some tips:

  • Choose 100% Fruit Juice
  • Eat Fruit for Dessert
  • Choose canned fruit that is in its own juice or light syrup.
  • Drink water, seltzer water, or diet sodas in place of regular soda.
  • Use your ingredients list to look for added sugars. All of these are sugar in one form or another:
  • Honey
  • Dextrose
  • Syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Sorghum
  • Raw sugar
  • Treacle

And remember, you don't need to cut out all sugar. Just cut back and you'll be doing your body good!

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences


Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, Glinsmann WH, Hein GL, Lineback DR, Miller SA, Nicklas TA, Weaver GA, White JS. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2007;47:561-582.

Melanson KJ, Zukley L, Lowndes J, Nguyen V, Angelopoulos TJ, Rippe JM. Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin and on appetite in normal-weight women. Nutrition 2007;23:103-112.

Stanhope KL, Griffen SC, Bair BR, Swarbrick MM, Keim NL, Havel PJ. Twenty-four-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles following consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:1194-203.