High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener synthesized chemically from corn.
Its low cost relative to cane sugar has made it the leading added sugar in conventional supermarket and takeout foods.
Conventional products that typically contain HFCS include breads, soda, dressings, sauces, frozen meals, desserts, pastries, canned foods, and condiments.
But that preference should have little to do with each sweetener’s proportions of glucose and fructose, which are roughly equal.
While fructose has clear disadvantages from a metabolic standpoint, it’s about equally abundant in cane sugar and HFCS.
HFCS vs. cane sugar: not much difference
Cane sugar consists entirely of sucrose, a compound that’s half glucose and half fructose … i.e., 50/50 glucose and fructose.
And HFCS is “high” in fructose only in comparison with regular corn syrup.
The ratio of fructose to glucose in typical HFCS is either 42 to 55 (the kind used in soft drinks) or 42 to 53 (the kind used in processed foods, cereals, and baked goods).
Some claim that HFCS is worse because its glucose and fructose are not chemically bound to each other, while they are bound together in cane sugar.
But the body immediately cleaves apart the glucose and fructose in cane sugar, making this a distinction without a metabolic difference.
The compositional similarity between HFCS and cane sugar makes it hard to explain why HFCS would be more “obesogenic” (weight-gain-promoting) than cane sugar (Moeller SM et al. 2009).
The chronological obesity-HFCS correlation proves nothing
A suspicious-looking parallel between the steep rises in HFCS consumption and obesity rates from 1980 to 2000 led some researchers to link the two phenomena.
And those who claim HFCS is more obesogenic must explain why, in the past 20 years, rates of obesity have also risen in countries that still use much more cane sugar than HFCS in processed foods and beverages.
(U.S. limits on cane sugar production, U.S. corn subsidies, and a tariff on foreign sugar have raised the price of cane sugar here well above those in the rest of the world, making HFCS much cheaper in this country.)
The replacement of butter and lard with vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, which accelerated during the 1970’s, is an equally likely culprit.
Moreover, evidence is growing that the obesity crisis cannot be attributed solely to the large shifts in the kinds of fat and sugar Americans have consumed over the past few decades.
Instead, the increasing cheapness of food and corresponding rise in portion sizes in packaged, restaurant, home, and takeout meals appears to be a very big factor (Ello-Martin JA et al. 2005; Ledikwe JH et al. 2005; Rolls BJ et al. 2006; Levitsky DA et al. 2011).
The notion that HFCS promotes weight gain more than cane sugar does just took another hit.
Although it was funded by the Corn Refiners’ Association, its outcomes match those of most other studies that have compared the obesogenic effects of cane sugar and HFCS.
Florida study finds cane sugar and HFCS equally guilty
The study was led by cardiologist James M. Rippe, M.D., Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida.
His laboratory focuses on nutrition and weight management, and the Corn Refiners Association funded this research.
Dr. Rippe’s team recruited 247 overweight or obese volunteers aged 25 to 60 for a randomized, double blind trial.
After 12 weeks on a reduced calorie diet, there was no evidence that either table sugar or HFCS prevented weight loss when the amount of overall calories was reduced.
In other words, people can lose weight while consuming typical amounts of sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), as long as they reduce their caloric intake.
The findings appear to further undermine the vilification of HFCS as an especially obesogenic form of sugar.
According to Dr. Rippe, “The results show that equally reduced-calorie diets caused similar weight loss regardless of the type or amount of added sugars. This lends further support to findings by our research group and others that table sugar and HFCS are metabolically equivalent.”
The results seem significant for those trying to lose weight or concerned about the type of added sugars in foods and beverages they consume.
Importantly, the study tested the amounts of each sweetener consumed at levels that are typical among American consumers.
“We wanted to design a study that would generate information that is useful and applicable to the way people actually eat, not speculative results on simulated laboratory diets that focus on one component at extreme dietary levels,” said Rippe.
Exaggerated concerns about the obesogenic effects of high fructose corn syrup cause many people to lose sight of the fact that there is no silver bullet when it comes to weight loss.
Calorie-cutting, along with exercise and a balanced diet, remains the key to weight loss and maintenance.
The challenge lies in cutting calories consistently … a goal that’s harder to achieve than to set.
Ello-Martin JA, Ledikwe JH, Rolls BJ. The influence of food portion size and energy density on energy intake: implications for weight management. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Jul;82(1 Suppl):236S-241S. Review.
Ledikwe JH, Ello-Martin JA, Rolls BJ. Portion sizes and the obesity epidemic. J Nutr. 2005 Apr;135(4):905-9.
Levitsky DA, Pacanowski CR. Free will and the obesity epidemic. Public Health Nutr. 2011 Sep 19:1-16. [Epub ahead of print]
Moeller SM, Fryhofer SA, Osbahr AJ 3rd, Robinowitz CB; Council on Science and Public Health, American Medical Association. The effects of high fructose syrup. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Dec;28(6):619-26. Review.
Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Meengs JS. Larger portion sizes lead to a sustained increase in energy intake over 2 days. J Am Diet Assoc. 2006 Apr;106(4):543-9.
Savage JS, Haisfield L, Fisher JO, Marini M, Birch LL. Do children eat less at meals when allowed to serve themselves? Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Jul;96(1):36-43. Epub 2012 May 30.