High fructose corn syrup — Is it really that bad?

High fructose corn syrup is in the news a lot, but what’s the truth?

High fructose corn syrup – It’s in almost every type of food, but what is it? What does high fructose even mean? Is it safe? Is it responsible for our country’s obesity epidemic?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is a type of sugar made from corn. HFCS is a blend of the simple sugars fructose and glucose and is produced by treating regular corn syrup with enzymes, to increase the fructose content to either 42 or 55 percent.  Therefore, “high fructose” refers to the greater fructose content compared to regular, untreated corn syrup. Common table sugar, on the other hand (known as sucrose), consists of fructose bonded to glucose in a ratio of one-to-one. In other words, it is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. Because of this similar chemical makeup, HFCS and sucrose are very similar in sweetness.

Then why not just use sucrose? HFCS is more stable than sucrose in many foods and beverages because it does not breakdown in acid or heat. It is also easier to add to foods during processing because it does not need to first be dissolved in liquid. Additionally, in the U.S., sugar derived from corn is much more readily and inexpensively available than sucrose, which comes from sugarcane or sugar beets. This allows many foods and beverages to be produced and sold much more cheaply than if they were made with sucrose.

So does HFCS  lead to weight gain and obesity? Currently there is insufficient evidence to suggest that HFCS favors weight gain any more than sucrose or other sugars. HFCS is a caloric sweetener that provides four calories per gram, just like sucrose, honey and fruit sugar. Whether it is HFCS, sucrose, starch, fat or any other caloric substance, long-term intake of calories in excess of energy expenditure will lead to weight gain and increases the risk for development of chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The problem with HFCS in particular, however, is that it is simply consumed too much. Many foods and beverages containing high amounts of HFCS are calorically dense and provide little additional nutritional value, especially regular soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, candy and many other highly processed foods. Even foods that do not taste sweet like some chips, breads and fried foods contain HFCS. For best health and weight maintenance, limit foods and beverages that contain large amounts of HFCS, sucrose and other added sugars. Instead, drink more water and other low calorie beverages and avoid hidden added sugars by choosing simpler, less-processed foods. Foods like milk and whole fruit that have naturally occurring sugar contain other important nutrients and are generally superior to the empty calories of soda, fruit drinks, and sugar-sweetened foods.

In short, HFCS is essentially the same as table sugar in taste and metabolic effect. Though it is largely over-consumed in sweetened beverages and processed foods, contributing to excess calorie consumption and weight gain, it is safe to be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced, healthy diet. Michigan State University Extension reminds that it is important to have a well-balanced diet.

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