Table sugar is relatively easy to understand. Also known as sucrose, it’s sweet and granular, and can come from sugarcane or sugar beets. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), on the other hand, is kind of confusing, mostly because of the words “high fructose.” Understanding what “high fructose” means will answer whether the two sweeteners are athlete-friendly options. We’ll find that, although they have different structures, table sugar and HFCS are not that different in their health effects.
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The Difference Between HFCS and Sugar
HFCS and normal sugar both contain similar amounts of fructose. Chemically speaking, there are three common types of “simple” sugars: glucose, fructose and galactose. Each is a small molecule that differs slightly in structure from the other two. Glucose is the main sugar used in the body, fructose is frequently found in fruits, and galactose is milk sugar.
Now lets get back to HFCS. The “C” and the “S” just indicate that it’s derived from corn syrup. But corn syrup isn’t naturally very sweet, unlike the sugarcane or sugar beet that table sugar comes from. So to make it sweeter, producers take advantage of the fact that fructose is 173 percent sweeter than glucose and use chemical processes to turn some of the glucose in the syrup to fructose. Turn enough glucose into fructose, and—voila!—you’ve got HFCS!
Usually, producers end up with a product that is a little over half fructose (55 percent to be exact), which makes “High Fructose” seem like a misnomer. Table sugar is composed of 50 percent fructose!
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With a similar balance of glucose and fructose, it should come as no surprise that most studies show little difference between the health effects of HFCS and sugar. Their main difference is not even related to health: it’s that HFCS is quite a bit cheaper than table sugar. Government policies have made domestic corn much cheaper than imported sugar for American food companies. That’s why you see so many corn-derived ingredients on packaged food labels, such as HFCS and modified cornstarch.
How These Sweeteners Affect Your Body
Like most other foods, the impact of HFCS and sugar depends on how much of it you eat. Your body needs some sugar to run, and you’ve always got just under a tablespoon of sugar running through your blood vessels. But in today’s society, it’s more likely that you’re eating too much sugar rather than not enough, since the body can convert complex carbs and protein into sugar to keep you running at full steam.
The risks that come with consuming too much sugar are well established. Excess sugar increases triglycerides, which are fats floating freely in the bloodstream that can lead to cardiovascular complications. A diet overly rich in sugar is also a risk factor for diabetes. For athletes specifically, the effect of sugar depends on the type of sport they play. For an endurance athlete, small amounts of sugar during a long session can boost performance. The same is true for bodybuilders, although the effects are generally smaller.
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Weightlifting provides more muscle gain when you adequately replenish your muscle and liver sugar stores, but both table sugar and HFCS can do that—in addition to converting the sugar that comes from breaking down complex carbs. The liver can store about 100 grams of sugar, and muscles can store between 200 and 500 grams, depending on how big you are. Only some of that sugar is burned during workouts, so you don’t need to eat a ton of sugar (or complex carbohydrate) to replace it.
Keep in mind that sugar is a fuel source like any other. If you take in more fuel than you burn, you will gain weight. Second, no single level of sugar is optimal for everyone. Someone with risk factors for diabetes (overweight, family history of diabetes, high fasting blood sugar, etc.) will benefit more from sugar reduction than would a endurance athlete.
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Outside of its well-known effects like causing cavities, sugar has a few lesser-known adverse effects. Due to hormonal responses, appetite regulation can be more difficult with a diet high in sugar. Sugar is also a “sticky” molecule, and t’s implicated in the worsening of scar tissue created when injured joint tissue sticks to itself and causes a loss of range of motion. Due to its stickiness, sugar also increases a process called “glycation,” which results in small molecules sticking together. These molecules, called advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), are implicated in diseases of aging.
However, there are also a few myths about sugar. For example, HFCS and table sugar are not extremely high on the glycemic index, which measures the amount of sugar released into the bloodstream in the hours after eating. The standard is pure glucose at 100. Sugar in the form of sucrose falls around 65 (and HFCS is pretty close to that), whereas quick oatmeal is around 83 and brown bread is around 85.
It’s important to note that all the pros and cons of sugar apply to HFCS and vice versa. Dozens of studies agree: your body won’t be able to tell the difference once they get past your digestive system and end up as fructose and glucose molecules. So whether you eat too much sugar or HFCS, they’re equally bad for you. But neither is terribly harmful in small amounts.