Have you seen this ad on TV? Two moms are standing in a kitchen, where Mom Number 1 is pouring juice for a gaggle of kids in the background. Mom Number 2 looks shocked and warns her that the juice in question contains high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Mom 1 looks up and says, “So?” Cut to Mom 2, who suddenly realizes that she can’t defend her objection to HFCS. Mom 1 then goes on to assure everyone that HFCS is “natural and safe” for the children, who all presumably go on to live happily and healthily ever after.

This and similar TV and print ads touting the safety of HFCS are suddenly all over the place, the result of a vigorous campaign the Corn Refiners Association has launched in response to questions posed by the media regarding the product.

These dueling messages have created much confusion among consumers, who are already worried about the amount and type of carbohydrates they ingest. According to the International Food Council, the majority of consumers (77%) report that they’re trying to consume fewer added sugars, with more than two-thirds (67%) singling out HFCS as a concern (IFIC 2008). As fitness professionals, you’ve likely already fielded questions about HFCS and even may have encountered clients who avoid it at all costs because it’s “evil.” But are these worries really justified, or is it all hype? This article will evaluate common misperceptions and review what the latest science says about HFCS.

Why the Fuss Over HFCS?

Topping the ingredient list of many processed foods and sweetened beverages, HFCS has garnered a great deal of attention for contributing to America’s obesity problem. Over the past several years, researchers have pointed to a parallel rise in HFCS consumption and obesity rates in the United States. These findings have fueled the ongoing heated debate regarding the role that schools should play in preventing childhood obesity and have prompted the proposal of bans on selling sweetened beverages. Health advocates have used such studies to justify changing local school wellness policies. As a wellness manager for the Albuquerque Public School District, I admittedly joined these advocates and the public by jumping on the Let’s Ban HFCS bandwagon. I now have a more balanced perspective about the safety of HFCS, and here’s why.

What Is HFCS?

HFCS is a caloric sweetener derived from corn syrup. It differs from the sucrose found in table sugar or honey, because it is created in a chemical process that converts some of the glucose found in corn syrup into fructose. Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1983, HFCS is widely used by food manufacturers because of its stability, texture, color, consistency and ability to enhance flavor. It is also inexpensive to manufacture. Because of these properties and advantages, the use of HFCS in food processing has increased a great deal in the past few decades.

Calling HFCS a “natural” sweetener (as the mom did in the TV ad described earlier) is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, it is highly processed and not grown in a field somewhere. More importantly, labeling anything “natural” isn’t really meaningful, because the FDA doesn’t legally define the term.

Despite what its name implies, HFCS actually contains no more fructose than common table sugar. Like table sugar and honey, HFCS is roughly half fructose and half glucose and provides the same amount of calories (4 per gram).

However, because HFCS is derived from corn syrup via a chemical process, the way that fructose and glucose exist in the sweetener differs from the way these compounds are naturally present in sugar and honey. This difference—and the way the body reacts to this difference—is what led to concerns that HFCS doesn’t satisfy hunger urges, which in turn can lead to more fat storage.

Blood Lipids, Appetite & Satiety

When it comes to how the body metabolizes sweeteners, there is little difference among HFCS, table sugar and honey, as they all contain similar proportions of fructose and glucose. While glucose metabolism occurs in cells throughout the body, fructose is almost exclusively metabolized in the liver, which yields mostly fat—mainly very low density lipoproteins and triglycerides (Parks et al. 2008).

Most human studies confirm that fructose has a negative effect on blood lipid levels. However, it’s important to point out that the percentage of calories derived from fructose varied in these trials, some of which examined the effects of higher-than-normal fructose intake levels. Nevertheless, when 15%–25% of daily calories are derived from either HFCS or sucrose, fructose does appear to increase blood triglyceride levels in humans, which increases cardiovascular risk if consumed over a long term (Bantle et al. 2000; Stanhope et al. 2008; Swarbrick et al. 2008).

Unlike glucose, fructose doesn’t stimulate the secretion of insulin or leptin, a hormone that triggers a
sense of fullness. Also, high intake levels of fructose can fail to depress ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, which means people don’t feel satiated. Consumed regularly and in high amounts, fructose can potentially interfere with food intake regulation. If the body doesn’t register that its energy needs have been met, this can lead to overeating and weight gain (Bray, Nielsen & Popkin 2004).

However, it’s important to remember that (despite its name) HFCS is not pure fructose. Because its glucose-to-fructose ratio is similar to that of table sugar and honey, HFCS triggers a comparable insulin response (Stanhope & Havel 2008). Additionally, HFCS, sugar and honey all have the same effect on appetite ratings and hormonal responses (Melanson et al. 2008; Melanson et al. 2007; Akhavan & Anderson 2007). Studies that compared HFCS, sugar and 1% milk found they all produced similar hormonal responses among subjects, and all had the same
effect on hunger, satiety and energy intake at a subsequent meal (Monsivais, Perrigue & Drewnowski 2007; Soenen & Westerterp-Plantenga 2007).

The bottom line: All caloric sweeteners produce the same kinds of responses when it comes to appetite and satiety.

Other Things to Consider

When it comes to choosing a beverage for your own children, keep in mind that fruit juices made from concentrate contain just as much fructose as drinks made with HFCS. Concentrated apple juice, for example, is 65% fructose, higher than the 55%-fructose HFCS used in most soft drinks. This is not to imply that high-calorie soft drinks are a healthy choice. In fact, fruit juices and concentrates used to sweeten food products are definitely more nutrient-rich and are the better choice!

Because of the bad reputation of HFCS, more and more manufacturers are using new products, such as crystalline sweetener, which is pure fructose. Manufacturers prefer these higher-fructose additives because much smaller amounts are needed compared with HFCS, which contains only half as much fructose as crystalline sweetener.

The Real Problem

Recent human studies demonstrate that HFCS is just as likely to contribute to our growing obesity epidemic as any other added sweetener. Like all caloric sweeteners, HFCS provides added sugar and calories and can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess. As noted by researchers in a 2007 review on the topic, “The critical issue is not sugar metabolism, but the way that sugar is used by the consumer” (Drewnowski & Bellisle 2007). In other words, it’s not so much which sweetener you choose as how much of it you regularly consume.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 8 teaspoons of added sugars per day while on a 2,000-calorie diet (USDHHS & USDA 2005). In real terms, the Beverage Guidance Panel recommends drinking no more than 8 ounces a day of beverages sweetened with HFCS or other caloric sweeteners (Popkin et al. 2006).

And remind your clients that a diet that is high in HFCS is also high in processed foods, which isn’t healthy for our bodies (or our planet!). The take-home message for clients and consumers is to reduce all sources of added caloric sweeteners and empty calories, rather than demonize any one sugar-laden product over another.