High-Fructose Corn Syrup and Health
How we satisfy our craving for sugar has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. We once relied almost exclusively on sucrose—common table sugar—made from sugar cane and sugar beets. Today, more than half of our sugar comes from corn, most of it in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It is found in everything from sodas to baby food. Sally Squires, a former nutrition columnist for the Washington Post, has called it “the floozy of the sugar world: sweeter and cheaper than sucrose, but viewed with distrust by some consumers.” ()
Some researchers have fingered high-fructose corn syrup as one of the villains behind the obesity epidemic. () They note that the dramatic increase in high-fructose corn syrup use closely parallels the trajectory of obesity rates. They also point out that the body metabolizes fructose differently from glucose, and that the differences in the way the body metabolizes fructose may predispose the body to turn fructose into fat.
But there’s a catch to this argument. Table sugar is made of one glucose molecule joined to one fructose molecule, so it contains glucose and fructose in equal proportions. High-fructose corn syrup also contains glucose mixed with fructose, with just slightly more fructose than glucose (or, in some varieties, slightly more glucose than fructose). Since table sugar and corn sweeteners are made up of the same “raw materials”—glucose and fructose—and these raw materials are used in roughly similar proportions, it is likely that table sugar and corn sweeteners have the same physiological impact on blood sugar, insulin, and metabolism.
At least for now, high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t seem to be any better or any worse than any other kind of added sugar. What is important is limiting your intake of all added sugars. That’s why sugary drinks and sweets are at the use-sparingly tip of the Healthy Eating Pyramid. A good goal is keeping added sugars from all sources to under 10 percent of your daily calories. Learn how to spot added sugars on the food label.
1. Squires S. Stealth calories. The Washington Post. February 6, 2007, p. HE01.
2. Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2004; 79:537-543.
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