Chemically speaking, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not in the same class as sucrose.
The term HFCS addresses not just a single syrup, but a class of syrups containing 42 to 90% fructose and the remainder is made up of glucose. Also known as Cornsweet, it is available commercially as HFCS-42, HFCS-55, or HFCS-90, where the number denotes the percentage of fructose in the mixture. By deduction, these syrups contain 58%, 45% and 10% glucose, respectively. Table sugar, also known as sucrose, on the other hand, is made up of 100% sucrose molecules.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) claims that “Both sweeteners – sucrose and HFCS – contain the same number of calories (4 per gram) and consist of equal parts of fructose and glucose.” The comparison is akin to comparing “apples to oranges,” for HFCS is a mixture of the single sugars fructose and glucose, while sucrose is a double sugar with the fructose and glucose molecules bound chemically. The sugars in HFCS are not bonded together chemically but merely mixed together. HFCS is a man-made sweetener, while sucrose occurs as such in nature and can also be isolated from sugar cane or beets.
Physiologically, HFCS is distinctly different from table sugar.
When one ingests a teaspoon of HFCS, one is essentially ingesting a mixture of single-sugar molecules that are immediately absorbed by the body. In contrast, when one ingests a teaspoon of sucrose, the body has to first break down the double sugar into its fructose and glucose components before they can be absorbed.
Regardless of its fructose concentration, the calorie contribution of HFCS is 4 calories per gram. Manufacturers are not required to declare the HFCS composition, so a consumer cannot know the fructose:glucose ratio on a Nutrition Facts Panel. This poses a problem for consumers with “fructose intolerance,” a medical condition that afflicts about 30% of the population. The consequences can range from gastric distress in people with Fructose Malabsorption to liver and kidney damage, and prove fatal for individuals with Fructosemia or Hereditary Fructose Intolerance.
Is one sweetener better than the other?
The Renaissance physician Paracelsus’ advice still holds good today. “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”
The issue is not with the type of sugar as much as with the quantity and frequency of consumption. Sugars, regardless of the kind – honey, turbinado, agave, maple, etc. – should represent a very small portion of our diets.
While there are subtle differences in how we metabolize different sugars, scientific evidence indicates little differences in the net effect on appetite, satiety (fullness), hormones, blood sugar levels, blood insulin levels and blood lipid levels. Gram for gram, differences between HFCS and sugar or any other ‘natural’ sugar are just not worth talking about.
What foods contain HFCS?
Almost all packaged foods. Read the label. Practically every one of them contains HFCS. Manufacturers use HFCS as an inexpensive way to:
- Enhance the taste of acidic foods
- Enhance fruit and spice flavors in meat and poultry marinades
- Balance the taste of salt and other preservatives in prepared meats and poultry
- Aid in fermentation for breads and yogurts
- Retain moisture in breakfast bars and breakfast cereals
- Render high-fiber baked goods and cereals palatable
- Lend consistency to viscosity and flavor of beverages and salad dressings
It is important to know how much sugars are used to make any food and the amount by noting where the sugar appears on the list of ingredients. The order of listing indicates the relative amount used.
It is important – for example – to know that regardless of whether the fruit or the sugar is listed first on the list of ingredients on a fruit-preserve label, preserves contain a lot more sugar than simply smashed peaches or apricots.
The takeaway message: no matter what it is called, look for sweeteners and sugars on the label and consume those products in moderate amounts.