Fact or Myth: Is High Fructose Corn Syrup The Worst Sweetener of Them All?

What is the effect of high fructose corn syrup on obesity and health? Is it worse than simple sugar? The research is conflicting. Get the breakdown and an opinion from STACK Expert Sima Cohen.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Americans are pretty remarkable. We invented Facebook and Google, we put men on the moon and we have the best colleges and universities in the world. Yet many of us have been damaged by a simple carbohydrate chemical.

What is this teeny-tiny bully? It's sugar. More specifically, it is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). With the obesity rate continuing to rise, there's been a plethora of conflicting research involving HFCS. Some medical communities believe it leads to weight gain and causes health problems [1]. Other research suggests it's no different from any other sugar [2]. (Read The Truth About Sugar For Athletes.)

Can our bodies tell the difference between HFCS and other sweeteners? With all of our supercomputers, why can't we find a definitive answer? (What about "calorie-free" sweeteners? Get The Lowdown on Artificial Sweeteners: Are They Healthy or Dangerous?)

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Produced by an enzymatic process that derives glucose syrup from rotting corn, HFCS is used to sweeten foods and beverages, particularly products that undergo a lot of processing [3]. It's made from both glucose and fructose, just like common table sugar or sucrose. Food manufacturers are particularly gung-ho about HFCS, because it's cheaper, it blends well and it has a long shelf life. [4] So it's found a large variety of everyday food items like:

  • Soft Drinks
  • Salad Dressings
  • Ketchup
  • Jelly/Jam
  • Cereal
  • Bread
  • Cookies/Candy
  • Ice Cream
  • Bread

Types of high fructose corn syrup

There are two widely-used types:

  • HFCS-55: mainly used in soft drinks, it contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose. [5]
  • HFCS-42: mainly used in desserts, cereal, syrup, ice cream and canned products, it contains roughly 42% fructose and 59% glucose. [5]

Sugar vs. HFCS

In order for the body to absorb table sugar, it must first digest sugar's fructose and glucose bonds to physically break them up before they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. In contrast, HFCS is directly metabolized and absorbed, because the fructose and glucose are blended together during the production process. [5]

This digestive process is a key element supporting the argument that HFCS has greater impacts on our blood levels and obesity rates [2]. However, just as much research supports the proposition that HFCS does not significantly alter insulin, ghrelin (the hunger hormone) or blood sugar levels. Basically, the body digests table sugar rapidly too, so the metabolism process between sucrose and HFCS is nearly identical, which explains why the two sweeteners have the same effect on appetite regulation and short-term energy. [6]

Obesity Effects

The American Medical Association (AMA) has been one of the major research leaders in examining the effects of HFCS on obesity. Their most recent statements claim that HFCS is no more of a contributor to obesity than any other form of sweetener. However, the AMA is also encouraging more research (both internal and external) to further explore the overall health effects of HFCS.

My Opinion

It's my personal belief that HFCS is evil. Recently the Corn Refiners Association has begun running an advertisement claiming HFCS is "natural." I have two problems with this claim:

  1. The Food and Drug Administration does not approve of the term "natural" on food product labels.
  2. Your liver must metabolize fructose, which is the "F" in HFCS, whereas only your cells metabolize glucose [7].

Added sugar is hidden everywhere in our daily diet, from the coffee we drink and the pasta sauce we buy to the cereal we eat. Americans consume over 22 more teaspoons of sugar than necessary on a daily basis. According to the U.S.  Department of Agriculture (USDA), people following the recommended 2,000 calorie a day limit should consume no more than 8 teaspoons of sugar daily. (Learn How to Make Flavorful Meals Without Excess Fat, Sugar and Sodium.)

Your best bet, and the advice I follow, is to limit your sugar intake and rid your life of HFCS. (See 5 Foods and 3 Tips to Fight Sugar Cravings.) Even though the research is conflicting, why take the risk with your health? When you do indulge, stick with natural alternatives like honey, agave nectar or maple syrup (not pancake syrup, which is basically liquid HFCS) and of course fruit.


[1] Bocarsly, M. E., Powell, E. S., Avena, N. M., & Hoebel, B. G. (2010). "High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels." Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1), 101-106.

[2] White, J. S. (2009). "Misconceptions about high-fructose corn syrup: is it uniquely responsible for obesity, reactive dicarbonyl compounds, and advanced glycation endproducts?" Journal of Nutrition, 139(6), 1219S-1227S.

[3] Otte, J. N. (1985). U.S. Patent No. 4,523,960. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

[4] Parker, K., Salas, M., & Nwosu, V. C. (2010). "High fructose corn syrup: production, uses and public health concerns." Biotechnol Mol Biol Rev, 5(5), 71-8.

[5] Monsivais, P., Perrigue, M. M., & Drewnowski, A. (2007). "Sugars and satiety: does the type of sweetener make a difference?" The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(1), 116-123.

[6] Monsivais, P., Perrigue, M. M., & Drewnowski, A. (2007). "Sugars and satiety: does the type of sweetener make a difference?" The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(1), 116-123.

[7] Cori, G. T., Ochoa, S., Slein, M. W., & Cori, C. F. (1951). "The metabolism of fructose in liver. Isolation of fructose-1-phosphate and inorganic pyrophosphate." Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, 7, 304-317.

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