Is high-fructose corn syrup really making us fat? These facts aren’t sugar-coated.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is found in various products ranging from cookies, sodas, crackers, to cereals, which makes it hard to avoid when consuming processed foods and drinks.1 With all of the negative media attention HFCS gets, it is easy to think that it is not the healthiest of substances, yet it is hard to determine why HFCS is bad for you. Have you ever wondered why HFCS is in our food products instead of sugar? Is HFCS worse for you, health-wise, than table sugar? Is HFCS responsible for our country’s obesity epidemic? Take a look at the facts.
HFCS is commonly used in foods in lieu of table sugar (sucrose) because it is cheaper and more stable. 2,3 More than half of the sugar in the United States is derived from the sugarbeet, which is grown in the cooler climates of the Midwest states.4 HFCS is made from American corn which is overly abundant and extremely cheap due to government subsidies.2 HFCS is a much more stable compound than table sugar for processed foods and beverages because it can withstand the acidic conditions these products go through when being shipped and subsequently left sitting on the shelf in a warehouse or grocery store.3 The stability of HFCS is due to its slightly different chemical composition in comparison to sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, meaning that it is composed of two different single sugars that are connected. These two single sugars are known as glucose and fructose. HFCS is made up of glucose and fructose as well; however, in HFCS these two molecules are not connected.1, 3 The way in which HFCS is made is what makes the difference in composition. The process of making HFCS was perfected in the late 1960s in Japan and involves a multiple-use enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of about half of the glucose in corn into fructose. HFCS is made up of an almost 50:50 ratio of glucose to fructose, the same ratio as sucrose.1, 2, 5
The difference in the chemical structures between HFCS and sucrose has led some researchers to believe that HFCS is metabolized differently than sucrose by the body and therefore could be a cause for concern in its relationship to obesity in the United States.1, 3, 6 HFCS is made up of free—not connected, as in sucrose—glucose and fructose molecules.1, 3 Glucose is important in signaling the regulating hormone insulin, which triggers either the release or inhibition of two other hormones that are important in appetite and satiety. These two hormones are ghrelin, which is responsible for telling your body when it is hungry and inhibited by insulin, and leptin, which is responsible for signaling to your body that it is full and is released by the presence of insulin, thus causing you to want to stop eating. Fructose, on the other hand, does not signal insulin to be secreted, so leptin will not be triggered; your body will not tell you when it is full.1, 6 The lack of insulin secretion also leads to the buildup of fructose in the liver, because the fructose won’t be able to be taken up by other tissues in your body without insulin present in your bloodstream. Your body wants to use this buildup of sugar for energy before it uses the fat in your body for energy, which can lead to weight gain due to this hierarchy of oxidation. Several recent studies have shown that fructose specifically increases visceral fat, or the fat that surrounds your organs in the abdominal area. This is cause for concern due to the negative effects this belly fat can have on the body, mainly increasing risks for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.7
Observational data sparked the original hypothesis that HFCS was related to the rising obesity epidemic in the United States. The frequent use of HFCS in products in the United States really took off in the late 1960s, around when its production method was being perfected. Obesity began to rise at approximately the same time as the increase in use of HFCS, causing some researchers to think that HFCS could be the cause of the obesity epidemic.1 Some experiments have been tested to investigate the hypothesis that HFCS could be responsible for the increase in obesity; however, their results have shown that the hormones insulin, ghrelin, and leptin are not affected any differently than they are by sucrose.6, 8 Studies have been carried out that show that the consumption of sugary beverages, whether sweetened with HFCS or sucrose, both increase the amount of visceral fat gained due to the fructose alone.7
The portrayal of HFCS being an unhealthy alternative in foods compared to sucrose does not have any substantial evidence to prove it is true as of now. Chemically, they are made up of the same two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose, but until more research is completed that can explain how HFCS affects the body, it would be wise to consume HFCS in moderation.1,2,5,6,7,8 Those who wish to avoid weight gain should be more concerned with the amount of added sugars they are consuming instead of the specific type, namely the amount of fructose, which has been shown to increase harmful belly fat.7
1. Bray, G. A., Nielsen, S. J., & Popkin, B. M. (January 01, 2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79, 4, 537-43.
2. Casey, J. P. (January 01, 1977). High fructose corn syrup. A case history of innovation. Starch – Stärke, 29, 6, 196-204.
3.White, J. S. (January 01, 2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88, 6.
4. Ali, Mir B. (October 01, 2004). Characteristics and production costs of U.S. sugarbeet farms. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service, 974-8.
5. Bemiller, J. N. (September 23, 2009). One hundred years of commercial food carbohydrates in the United States. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 57, 18, 8125-8129.
6. Melanson, K. J., Zukley, L., Lowndes, J., Nguyen, V., Angelopoulos, T. J., & Rippe, J. M. (February 01, 2007). Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin and on appetite in normal-weight women. Nutrition, 23, 2, 103-112.
7. Liebman, Bonnie (April 01, 2012). Sugar belly: how much sugar is too much sugar? Nutrition Action, 3-7.
8. Stanhope, K. L., Swarbrick, M. M., Havel, P. J., Bair, B. R., Griffen, S. C., & Keim, N. L. (May 01, 2008). Twenty-four-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles following consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87, 5, 1194-1203.