Fructose

We’ve talked about high fructose corn syrup many times here at Biofortified. There’s a lot of subjects to be considered, including whether we should be growing so much corn in the first place. The biggest concern about HFCS, though, judging by popular magazines and websites, is health. People are worried that corn syrup is worse for us than other sugar sources, which has resulted in the latest marketing scheme of switching corn syrup for other sugars so products can be labeled “HFCS Free”.
Does changing the sugar actually make the product healthier? Unfortunately, no. Because HFCS is sweeter than cane or beet sugar, more calories of sugar have to be added to achieve the same level of sweetness. The only thing that would make a product healthier is to reduce overall sugar content. This is especially true because cane and beet sugar as well as other caloric sweeteners all contain fructose, which has been correlated with or directly connected with a variety of health problems.
Over at Science-Based Medicine, Dr. Jim Laidler (an accomplished physician turned researcher) has written High Fructose Corn Syrup: Tasty Toxin or Slandered Sweetener? It’s a very informative post, one that anyone with concerns about HFCS should read and share! He concludes that fructose is something to be concerned about, but that’s only part of the story:

For people who are worried about their health or their children’s health — and who isn’t, these days — the data suggest that the best choice is to reduce intake of all sweeteners containing fructose. That includes not only the evil HFCS, but also natural cane sugar, molasses (which is just impure cane sugar), brown sugar (ditto) and honey. Even “unsweetened” (no added sugar) fruit juices need to be considered when limiting your family’s fructose intake.
Finally, the best nutritional advice is to eat everything in moderation — and that includes sweets. While a diet high in fructose may increase your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — maybe — a fructose-free diet is not guaranteed toprevent those diseases. Eat a variety of foods, including a small amount of sweets, get enough exercise, watch your (and your children’s) weight and see your doctor for regular health check-ups.
And stop worrying that HFCS is poisoning you and your children.

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

9 comments

  1. There is another part of the story, particularly for solid food: reducing its sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose…) content implies that you have to replace the sugar with something else, if only to maintain the same weight. Light food may end up being not so light.

  2. One thing that is missing from the public discussion is the fructose content of other sweet things we all enjoy. I was having a discussion with someone about sugar at a party (I’m a nerd) and they were saying that if you drink the 100% juice you will be safe from bad sugars like fructose from HFCS. I had to burst his bubble and point out that those 100% juice bottles are using white grape juice and apple juice in a blend to hide the flavor behind the dominant flavors of the juice drink. The result is just as much sugar if not more, and this time 66% fructose instead of 55%.
    I thought that HFCS was just as sweet per gram as sucrose? I thought that the intent behind HFCS was to make something that could be substituted for table sugar in foods.

  3. Karl – if I remember correctly (2nd hand info) Fructose is a lot sweeter than glucose (based on highly scientific information from a culinary school) which would suggest that HFCS should be ~5% sweeter than sucrose (50:50 cf 55:45?) and by extention that blended juices with higher fructose should be ~15% sweeter than glucose on a w/w basis.
    Although that’s assuming fructose is 2x sweeter… I forget what the actual number is (and google is just too much effort before 1st coffee is finished)

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fructose#Relative_sweetness
    It looks like glucose is less sweet than sucrose, so a combination of glucose and fructose could go either way, depending on the ratio. Several sites peg HFCS as being sweeter than sucrose, while the HFCS industry site states that HFCS55 has the same sweetness?
    http://www.sweetsurprise.com/myths-and-facts/faqs-high-fructose-corn-syrup/sweetness
    This paper also mentions no difference in sweetness for HFCS-55:
    http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/88/6/1716S?ijkey=QWxerxxoSOP4o&keytype=ref&siteid=ajcn
    Both reference a book chapter by John S. White (who is the author of the AJCN paper) to support the conclusion that neither is sweeter.
    I am beginning to wonder if some references are getting crossed, because lots of places report that HFCS is sweeter than sucrose, but I can’t find a journal reference for that claim. It is also possible that JS White is self-referencing an incorrect claim. I left a comment at SBM to see if Dr. Laidler has any more answers on that topic.

  5. Good post. When discussing carcinogens Bruce Ames use to say that if you do everything in moderation you will be fine. I am inclined to think the same is true about fructose. I find most of these claims made in these studies to be so broad that they are hard take seriously.

  6. I’m a doctoral candidate in medicine, epidemiology and public health, and I study populations and risks of disease (especially heart disease, and stroke). Last year I did a specific study on soda consumption, and thus by proxy calorie and HFCS consumption, and incidence of disease in a population of ~3000 people followed for 20 years.
    Couple of points.
    I agree that much of ‘HFCS free’ is advertising to confront a growing media-enabled market concern, and at the end of the day, you have to watch your calorie content for the greatest health protection. Daily consumption of caramel coloring (and its PAGE end products) in dark sodas, regardless of sugar content, is also something best avoided or used in controlled moderation.
    However, I’m afraid some of your points do not compare apples to apples. The question is not whether adding more calories in order to equal sweetness means the new, higher calorie soda is worse for you than the original, HFCS soda was. The question is, all things being equal, including calories, is an HFCS soda worse for you than a sucrose one? I believe the evidence shows that the HFCS soda is worse for you, and I don’t think it is useful to detract from that evidenced claim by way of a tautological construct, or an appeal to authority (re: Laidler). I do recommend reading his well researched and measured post, but I would certainly make this claim to him as well – very few things are guaranteed to prevent disease, e.g. vaccines, and I don’t think it’s useful to make a claim against avoiding probable unhealthy behaviors because they do not meet that standard. Anyone could assume they were reducing risk even slightly by avoiding HFCS, but especially the 1 in 4 americans who are overweight, the increasing number of them who are diabetic, developing children, and for the love of pirates people with metabolic syndrome can substantially reduce their risk of a clinically significant vascular incident such as MI or stroke by changing their diet and eliminating HFCS. Since the market does not provide ample opportunities for alternatives, for many this will mean not drinking soda, and we should herald support for this whenever possible.
    Second, even if it were appropriate to compare equally sweetened, but higher calorie sodas to each other, I’m afraid the current market state does not reflect your argument. Sodas that use sucrose or other sugars in place of HFCS do not have an increase in the former to offset the reduction in sweetness compared to the latter. Compare the nutritional labels from new, non-HFCS products (such as Pepsi and Mountain Dew “Throwback”) to their current HFCS versions, and I think you’ll find that in most cases they have identical caloric and sugar content, and in some cases, they actually have slightly less total sugar. I also happen to think they taste better, but as Cleese would say, that’s as maybe.
    We should support this trend, including on blogs like this one. Rest assured, these products are mostly a test to see if they can sell to people who would otherwise not drink soda, not an attempt to satisfy current soda drinkers. But there will be less resistance to regulation that affects HFCS-soda if there is a larger market share of HFCS-free sodas available, and in fact less regulation will be necessary or desired if we can show there is cause for the market regulating itself via the popularity of HFCS-free. Buying HFCS-free sends a signal to corporate that they should brew more batches, which means switching factory equipment, which means more investment in retaining the brand.
    One of my favorite things in the world is drinking coca-cola from a wet green bottle out of a 30 year-old icebox that’s strapped to the front of a large tricycle on a dirt road in a foreign country. Part of it is because I’m in a good mood, what I must have seen that day and that I’m probably getting my first cold drink after a long hard day of hiking or climbing. Part of it is the people you talk to, because you have to stand there drinking it to give them their bottle back. But most of it is because that’s the only place I can get coke that taste’s quite like that – because in other countries, they use sucrose instead of HFCS, and it just tastes so much better. For a novelty drink like soda (that we supposedly drink for taste anyway), I should hope this would be enough. For those that have less discriminate taste, I hope the fact that corporate interests (fed by government interference) has resulted in a product that is demonstrably less healthy than an available alternative will be, and I hope you will agree.

  7. Matthew,
    For the love of pirates, could you please provide some links to the evidence that HFCS is worse than other sources?
    I can’t vilify HFCS without solid evidence. It is true that fructose is sweeter and that fewer calories equal same sweetness.

  8. Kudos for calling it what it is—a marketing scheme. The switch from high fructose corn syrup to refined sugar is exactly that. Both are handled by the body the same way and contain the same number of calories, but consumers will lose these facts in the middle of all this fear-mongering.

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