High Fructose Corn Syrup
Is there something unique about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that could lead to weight gain or health problems? Does your body really know the difference between corn syrup, sugar and other sweeteners? That may depend on who you ask. Some people think it’s different and prefer to avoid it. Others say that it’s no different than other sugars, but we should be limiting our intake of all sugars anyway. So either way, most people think it’s good to cut back on all sweeteners, regardless of type. I once believed that HFCS was different, and therefore a key player in the obesity crisis. But after reviewing the published, peer-reviewed scientific research on HFCS, today my view is different. Read on to find out whether high fructose corn syrup deserves its bad rap and how it really compares with regular sugar.
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a calorie-providing sweetener used to sweeten foods and beverages, particularly processed and store-bought foods. It is made by an enzymatic process from glucose syrup that is derived from corn. A relatively new food ingredient, it was first produced in Japan in the late 1960s, then entered the American food supply system in the early 1970s. HFCS is a desirable food ingredient for food manufacturers because it is equally as sweet as table sugar, blends well with other foods, helps foods to maintain a longer shelf life, and is less expensive (due to government subsidies on corn) than other sweeteners. It can be found in a variety of food products including soft drinks, salad dressings, ketchup, jams, sauces, ice cream and even bread. There are two types of high fructose corn syrup found in foods today:
- HFCS-55 (the main form used in soft drinks) contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
- HFCS-42 (the main form used in canned fruit in syrup, ice cream, desserts, and baked goods) contains 42% fructose and 58% glucose.
Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup Table sugar (also called sucrose) and HFCS both consist of two simple sugars: fructose and glucose. The proportion of fructose and glucose in HFCS is basically the same ratio as table sugar, which is made of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 calories per gram). But the fructose and glucose in table sugar are chemically bonded together, and the body must first digest sugar to break these bonds before the body can absorb the fructose and glucose into the bloodstream. In contrast, the fructose and glucose found in HFCS are merely blended together, which means it doesn’t need to be digested before it is metabolized and absorbed into the bloodstream. Because of this, theories abound that HFCS has a greater impact on blood glucose levels than regular sugar (sucrose). However, research has shown that there are no significant differences between HFCS and sugar (sucrose) when it comes to the production of insulin, leptin (a hormone that regulates body weight and metabolism), ghrelin (the “hunger” hormone), or the changes in blood glucose levels. In addition, satiety studies done on HFCS and sugar (sucrose) have found no difference in appetite regulation, feelings of fullness, or short-term energy intake. How can that be? Well, the body digests table sugar very rapidly, too. And both HFCS and table sugar (sucrose) enter the bloodstream as glucose and fructose—the metabolism of which is identical. There is no significant difference in the overall rate of absorption between table sugar and HFCS, which explains why these two sweeteners have virtually the same effects on the body.
HFCS and Obesity HFCS hit the food industry in the late 1970s, right when the waistlines of many Americans began to expand. During this time, many diet and activity factors where changing in society. It is a well-researched fact that the current obesity crisis is very much a multi-faceted problem. The American Medical Association (AMA) has extensively examined the available research on HFCS and obesity. This organization has publicly stated that, to date, there is nothing unique about HFCS that causes obesity. It does not appear to contribute more to obesity than any other type of caloric sweetener. However, the AMA does encourage more research on this topic.
But Is It Natural? High fructose corn syrup has received a lot of blame and bad press lately. Recent marketing campaigns funded by the Corn Refiners Association have tried to improve the reputation of high fructose corn syrup, calling it “natural” among other things. However, it’s important to note that the word “natural” doesn’t mean much. This common food-labeling term is NOT regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Let’s face it: Neither table sugar nor HFCS would exist without human interaction and processing. You cannot just go to a field and squeeze corn syrup out of corn or sugar out of sugar beets or sugarcane. “Natural” or not, too much sweet stuff can’t be good for you—even if it comes from what you might think of as natural sweeteners like honey, agave syrup (which is also highly refined and actually higher in fructose than HFCS) or raw sugar.
What about Fructose? Much of the research cited to demonize HFCS is done specifically on fructose. But as we’ve already learned, fructose is just one component of HFCS, and it is found in table sugar and other sweeteners, too. Fructose also occurs naturally in fresh, whole fruits. So when a study comes out saying that increased “fructose” consumption leads to health problems, weight gain, cancer or other problems, that doesn’t mean that those findings can be applied specifically to HFCS—or to any other fructose-containing food or sweetener. Put simply, what happens in a lab or in animal tests cannot be applied to humans, and definitely doesn’t imply you’d have the same outcome (weight gain, cancer, etc.) by consuming other foods or sweeteners of which fructose is a component. There is some emerging research showing that high intakes of fructose can lead to a host of health problems. But who consumes that much pure fructose—and all by itself? Does this mean we should avoid fruit? Honey? All things that contain any amount of fructose? Clearly more research needs to be done in this area, but the bottom line remains: We should all be eating fewer sweets, regardless of the source of sweetness. It’s important that we be wise consumers of health information and read studies like this critically, asking important questions, and making sure not to apply a small lab study to other real-world scenarios that might not fit.
Spark Action: What This Means for You For years, SparkPeople’s position (and my position as a registered dietitian) has always been that we are eating too much of the sweet stuff, no matter what the source. When it’s added to your morning coffee, hidden in your can of soda, or baked into your chocolate brownie, sweetened foods are everywhere. The typical American over the age of two consumes more than 300 calories daily from sugar and other caloric sweeteners (including HFCS). That’s 19 teaspoons of sweetener (75 grams) a day! One-sixth of our calorie intake is coming from a food ingredient that provides absolutely no nutritional benefit! This is definitely affecting our weight and overall health. It is time to take charge and cut back! The most recent recommendations suggest:
- Healthy adults who consume approximately 2,000 calories daily should limit the amount of all caloric sweeteners to no more than 32 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar daily.
- For SparkPeople members who are consuming approximately 1,200-1,500 calories daily, this would equate to about 19-24 grams (5-6 teaspoons) of sugar each day.
Please note that doesn’t only apply to sugar that you to your morning coffee or oatmeal; it applies to all “hidden” sugars, too, which are found in other processed foods and drinks that you may purchase. To help curb the sugar monster so you can keep your weight and health in check, follow these tips.
- Always read the ingredients list. Foods you might not even realize are sweetened (like bread, dried fruit and crackers) might be hiding added sugars. Learn to identify terms that mean added sugars on the ingredients list, including sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, crystallized fructose, dextrin, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, corn sweeteners, evaporated cane juice, glucose-fructose, granulated fructose, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, malt, molasses, and turbinado sugar. Try to limit foods that have any of these “sugars” as one of the first three ingredients.
- If you take your coffee with sugar, try adding a small piece of cinnamon stick or vanilla bean to your cup. It adds flavor without adding caloric sweeteners.
- When baking, reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. Most of the time you can reduce the sugar by up to one-third without noticing a difference in the taste or texture of the final product. Now that’s sweet!
- Sweeten other food items with vanilla extract or other “sweet” spices instead of caloric sweeteners. Many times cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice can naturally sweeten a recipe.
- Substitute homemade fruit purees for sugar and syrups in recipes. Applesauce (look for varieties made without added sugar) can be substituted for some of the sugar in muffins, breads and baked desserts.
- Top your breakfast waffles or pancakes with fresh fruit compote instead of syrup.
- Limit the amount of regular soda and caloric-sweetened beverages. While artificially sweetened “diet” beverages aren’t exactly health foods, they are one way to cut calories. The healthiest choice is always water. To add a splash of flavor to your water, add lemon or lime juice, other types of 100% fruit juice, or pieces of frozen fruit.
- Skip the calorie-sweetened yogurts that use sugar, honey, syrup, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, sugar and HFCS. Buy plain, natural yogurt and sweeten it yourself with fresh fruit, frozen fruit or fruit canned in its own juice.
- Select breakfast cereals with 5 grams of sugar or fewer per serving. Add sweetness with fresh, frozen, or fruit canned in its own juice. Try sliced bananas, canned peaches, frozen blueberries, or fresh strawberries.
- If you’re a juice drinker, buy 100% fruit juices and limit it to 1 cup daily for adults and ½ cup daily for children. Beware of juice “drinks,” fruit punches, and juice cocktails; these contain only a small amount of juice and the rest is water and added caloric sweeteners.
Selected Sources: American Dietetic Association. Use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2004. 104:255-275. American Medical Association. Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health. The health effects of high fructose syrup. July 23, 2009. American Medical Association. AMA finds high fructose syrup unlikely to be more harmful to health than other calorie sweeteners. American Medical Association Press Release. June 19, 2008. Forshee RA, Storey ML, Allison DB, Glinsmann WH, Hein GL, Lineback DR, Miller SA, Nicklas TA, Weaver GA, White JS. 2007. A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Critical Review Food Science Nutrition. 47(6):561-82. Melanson KJ, Angelopoulos TJ, Nguyen V, Zukley L, Lowndes J, Rippe JM. Dec. 2008. High-fructose corn syrup, energy intake, and appetite regulation. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 88(6):1738S-1744S. Soenen S, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Dec. 2007. No differences in satiety or energy intake after high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or milk preloads. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 86(6):1586-94.
The Truth about ”Natural” Sweeteners
— By Liza Barnes & Nicole Nichols
If you’ve wandered into a natural food store lately, you might have noticed that the selection of sweeteners seems to have multiplied. Powders, syrups, and liquids with exotic-sounding names catch your eye, each claiming to be tastier, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly than plain old table sugar. But are they really any better? Is it worth the extra expense and hassle of deviating from the mainstream to try “natural” sweeteners? Whether you choose natural, artificial or conventional sweeteners is up to you. This article provides a rundown of the most common types of “natural” sweeteners you’ll find on the market to help you decide.
- Sugarcane Sweeteners Sugarcane is a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Making what we know as table sugar from sugarcane can range from a relatively simple to a multistep process, and the final result varies depending on the specific steps in the process. Light and dark brown, powdered, and granulated white sugars are all highly refined, while others, like those listed below, are made with fewer steps on the processing chain. Fewer steps benefit the environment, because less processing means less environmental impact. It also means that more of the vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in sugarcane remain in the end product. All of these sugarcane sweeteners can be found in the baking aisle and/or bulk bins of natural foods stores.
- Blackstrap molasses, unlike other sugarcane sweeteners, contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. “First” molasses is left over when sugarcane juice is boiled, cooled, and removed of its crystals. If this product is boiled again, the result is called second molasses. Blackstrap molasses is made from the third boiling of the sugar syrup and is the most nutritious molasses, containing substantial amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. When buying, consider choosing organic blackstrap molasses, as pesticides are more likely to be concentrated due to the production of molasses. Cooking notes: Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses.
- Rapadura is the Portuguese name for unrefined dried sugarcane juice. Probably the least refined of all sugarcane products, rapadura is made simply by cooking juice that has been pressed from sugarcane until it is very concentrated, and then drying and granulating it or, traditionally, pouring it into a mold to dry in brick form, which is then shaved. Because the only thing that has been removed from the original sugarcane juice is the water, rapadura contains all of the vitamins and minerals that are normally found in sugarcane juice, namely iron. A German company called Rapunzel is the main company that markets pure, organic rapadura in the U.S. Cooking notes: Rapadura replaces sugar 1:1 and adds a molasses flavor and dark color, so it’s great in baked goods like brownies, coffee and black tea, but it may not be desirable in something like lemonade.
- Sucanat stands for sugar-cane-natural, and is very similar to rapadura. It is made by mechanically extracting sugarcane juice, which is then heated and cooled until tiny brown (thanks to the molasses content) crystals form. It contains less sucrose than table sugar (88 percent and 99 percent, respectively). Cooking notes: Sucanat replaces sugar 1:1 and is also an accepted substitute for traditional brown sugar. Use it as you would rapadura (see above).
- Turbinado sugar is often confused with sucanat, but the two are different. After the sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, the juice is then boiled, cooled, and allowed to crystallize into granules (like sucanat, above). Next, these granules are refined to a light tan color by washing them in a centrifuge to remove impurities and surface molasses. Turbinado is lighter in color and contains less molasses than both rapadura and sucanat. A popular brand-name of turbinado sugar is Sugar in the Raw, which can be found in most natural food stores, and even in single-serve packets at coffee shops. Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Turbinado is a great substitute for brown sugar, too.
- Evaporated cane juice is essentially a finer, lighter-colored version of turbinado sugar. Still less refined than table sugar, it also contains some trace nutrients (that regular sugar does not), including vitamin B2. In Europe, it’s known as “unrefined sugar.” Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Can be used in a wide variety of foods and recipes without adversely affecting color or flavor.
Non-Sugarcane Sweeteners Natural sweeteners are flooding the market these days. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ones that are not made from sugarcane.
- Agave nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. Far from a whole food, agave juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into agave syrup. Vegans often use agave as a honey substitute, although it’s even sweeter and a little thinner than honey. It contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Agave nectar syrup is available in the baking aisle at most natural foods stores. The fructose content of agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup, which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. High fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose while agave nectar syrup contains 90%. Despite this, it has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup of sugar, use 2/3 cup of agave nectar, reduce the quantity of liquids slightly, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It also makes a good sweetener in cold liquids, such as iced tea.
- Brown rice syrup is made when cooked rice is cultured with enzymes, which break down the starch in the rice. The resulting liquid is cooked down to a thick syrup, which is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild butterscotch flavor. It is composed of about 50% complex carbohydrates, which break down more slowly in the bloodstream than simple carbohydrates, resulting in a less dramatic spike in blood glucose levels. It’s worth noting that the name “brown rice syrup” describes the color of the syrup, not the rice it’s made from, which is white. Cooking notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-1/3 cups brown rice syrup, and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup has the tendency to make food harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies. You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet breads.
- Honey, made by bees from the nectar of flowers, is a ready-made sweetener that contains traces of nutrients. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baked goods, use about 3/4 cup of honey and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce liquids by about 2 Tablespoons for each cup of honey.
- Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, which is collected, filtered, and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup with a distinctive flavor. It contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. You can find it in bulk in some natural foods stores, but don’t be fooled by fake maple syrups, which are cheaper and more readily available at the grocery store. “Maple-flavored syrups” are imitations of real maple syrup. To easily tell the difference, read the ingredients list on the nutrition label. True maple syrup contains nothing but “maple syrup.” Imitation syrups are primarily made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and/or artificial sweeteners, and contain 3 percent maple syrup (or less). Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baking, use about 3/4 cup of maple syrup and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit. For each cup of maple syrup, reduce liquids by about 2 tablespoons.
Here’s a chart of how these sweeteners compare with one another and with regular table sugar:
|Sweetener||Serving size||Calories||Carbs||Other nutrients of note|
|White (table) sugar||2 tsp||33||8 g||None*|
|Blackstrap molasses||2 tsp||32||8 g||Manganese (18% DV), copper (14% DV), iron (13% DV), calcium (12% DV), potassium (10% DV), magnesium (7%DV), vitamin B6 (5% DV), selenium (4% DV)|
|Rapadura||2 tsp||30||8 g||None*|
|Sucanat||2 tsp||30||8 g||None*|
|Turbinado sugar||2 tsp||30||8 g||None*|
|Evaporated cane juice||2 tsp||30||8 g||Riboflavin (3% DV), potassium (1% DV), manganese (1% DV), copper (1% DV), iron (1% DV)|
|Agave nectar syrup||2 tsp||40||8 g||None*|
|Brown rice syrup||2 tsp||40||10 g||None*|
|Honey||2 tsp||43||11 g||None*|
|Maple syrup||2 tsp||45||9 g||Manganese (22% DV), zinc (4% DV)|
*Less than 0.5% DV of any vitamins or minerals
SparkPeople’s Licensed and Registered Dietitian, Becky Hand, notes that published recommendations say to limit added sugars from all sources to no more than 10%-15% of total calorie intake, which is 120 calories (7.5 tsp) of sugar for a 1,200-calorie diet. The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Too much sugar—whether it’s marketed as “natural” or not—can harm your health. Even sweeteners touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed here, don’t typically add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to your diet. But in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with the sweetness that a little sugar adds to life. So if you’re going to eat it, eat the good stuff…just not too much of it.
This article has been reviewed and approved by licensed and registered dietitian, Becky Hand, and Tanya Jolliffe, a SparkPeople healthy eating expert.
WHAT ARE SUGAR ALCOHOLS?
If you spend any time looking at nutrition labels, you’ve probably noticed some intriguing ingredients in sweet foods that are touted as diet-friendly, sugar-free, low-carb, or even formulated for people with diabetes. One ingredient, known as sugar alcohol, is a special type of sugar replacement that is frequently found in soft drinks, gums, cookies, and sugar-free candy. Ever wonder what sugar alcohol is doing in these supposedly healthy foods? You’re not alone!
What Are Sugar Alcohols? The term “sugar alcohol” is very misleading. Sugar alcohols get their name from their unique chemical structure, which resembles both sugar and alcohol. But they’re neither sugars nor alcohols. In fact, sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that sweetens foods, but with half the calories of sugar. There are several specific types of sugar alcohols (usually ending with the letters “-ol”). When reading a food label, the following ingredients are actually sugar alcohols:
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
Look familiar? You’ll find sugar alcohols in a wide variety of foods (gums, pancake syrups, candies, ice creams, baked goods, and fruit spreads), health and beauty products (toothpastes, mouthwashes and breath mints), and even medicines (cough syrups, cough drops and throat lozenges). In the near future they may be found in pie fillings, cake frostings, canned fruit, beverages, yogurt and tabletop sweeteners.
Why Use Sugar Alcohols? You may wonder why manufacturers would put sugar alcohols in foods and other products, or why people might seek them out. Here are a few reasons why consumers choose these products:
- Fewer calories. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories (0.2 to 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram), making them a diet-friendly choice for people who want to limit their caloric intake, but still enjoy sweet foods.
- Safe for diabetics. Sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly (and incompletely) by the body. Unlike regular sugar, they require little or no insulin for metabolism. *People with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or other health professional about incorporating sugar alcohols into their daily meal plans.
- Better dental health. Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay since they are not metabolized by the bacteria that produce dental cavities.
- Fewer drug interactions. Sugar alcohols do not react with the pharmacologic ingredients in medicines as much as sugar sometimes can.
- Individual tastes. The different types of sugar alcohols vary in sweetness, from being about half as sweet to equally sweet as sugar.
In addition to consumer desires, sugar alcohols appeal to manufacturers too. Here’s why:
- Sugar alcohols do not lose their sweetness when heated, although many artificial sweeteners do.
- Sugar alcohols do not absorb water like sugar does. Therefore the surface of foods made with sugar alcohols won’t become sticky as quickly as products made with sugar.
- Molds and bacteria do not grow and multiply on sugar alcohols as well as they do on sugar.
- They can use a combination of sugar alcohols, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners to give the most pleasant taste, appearance, and texture to a food product.
Are Sugar Alcohols Safe? Sugar alcohols have been used for years. After careful review, scientists have concluded that they are safe for human consumption. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies some sugar alcohols as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and others are approved as food additives.
For some people, consuming certain sugar alcohols in excessive amounts may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Whether or not you will experience problems will depend on your individual sensitivity level and the other foods you consume at the same time. It is best to find your individual tolerance level when using these food ingredients, and to avoid them if they cause discomfort.