For decades, high fructose corn syrup has been used as a sweetener in processed foods.
Supposedly high in fructose, it has been heavily criticized for its negative health effects.
Many people claim that it is even more harmful than other sugar-based sweeteners.
But how does high fructose corn syrup really compare to regular sugar? Is it any worse?
Let’s have a look…
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener derived from corn syrup, which is processed from corn.
It is used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks, primarily in the USA.
Similarly to regular table sugar (sucrose), it is composed of both fructose and glucose.
It became a popular sweetener in the late 1970’s when the price of regular sugar was high, while corn prices were low due to government subsidies.
However, the use of high fructose corn syrup has started declining slightly, in line with the rising popularity of artificial sweeteners.
The graph below shows trends for sweetener consumption in the US, in the years 1966-2009 (1):
The blue line shows the consumption of regular sugar, while the red line shows the consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which skyrocketed between 1975 and 1985.
Bottom Line: High fructose corn syrup is a sugar-based sweetener, used in processed foods and drinks in the US. Like regular sugar, it consists of the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
How is High Fructose Corn Syrup Produced?
High fructose corn syrup is made from corn (maize), which is usually genetically modified.
The corn is first milled to produce corn starch.
Corn syrup consists mostly of glucose. To make it sweeter and more similar in taste to regular sugar (sucrose), some of that glucose is converted to fructose, using enzymes.
Several different types of high fructose corn syrup are available, with varying proportions of fructose. For example, the most concentrated form contains 90% fructose, and is called HFCS 90.
The most commonly used type is HFCS 55 (55% fructose, 42% glucose).
HFCS 55 is very similar to sucrose (regular table sugar), which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.
Bottom Line: High fructose corn syrup is produced from corn (maize), which is further refined to produce syrup. The most common type used is very similar to sugar.
High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Regular Sugar
There are only tiny differences between the most common type of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS 55) and regular sugar.
First of all, high fructose corn syrup is liquid, containing 24% water, whereas table sugar is dry and granulated.
In terms of chemical structure, the fructose and glucose in high fructose corn syrup are not bound together like in granulated sugar (sucrose).
Instead, they “float” separately alongside each other.
These differences do not affect nutritional value or health properties in any way.
In our digestive system, sugar is broken down into fructose and glucose, so corn syrup and sugar end up looking exactly the same.
Gram for gram, HFCS 55 has slightly higher levels of fructose than regular sugar. The difference is very small and not particularly relevant from a health perspective.
Of course, if we were comparing regular sugar with HFCS 90 (90% fructose), then regular sugar would be far more desirable, as excessive consumption of fructose can be very harmful.
However, HFCS 90 is rarely used, and then only in tiny amounts due to its extreme sweetness (3).
Bottom Line: High fructose corn syrup and sugar are almost identical. The main difference is that in sugar, the fructose and glucose molecules are bound together.
Studies Comparing Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
The main reason why sugar-based sweeteners are unhealthy, is because of the large amount of fructose they supply.
The liver is the only organ that can metabolize fructose in significant amounts. When the liver gets overloaded, it turns the fructose in the fat (4).
Some of that fat can lodge in the liver, contributing to fatty liver. High fructose consumption is also linked to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, obesity and type 2 diabetes, to name a few (5, 6, 7).
Going into all the harmful effects of excess fructose is beyond the scope of this article, but you can read about them here.
High fructose corn syrup and regular sugar have a very similar blend of fructose and glucose (with the ratio about 50:50), so we would expect the health effects to be largely the same.
Sure enough, this has been confirmed numerous times.
So according to the best available evidence, sugar and high fructose corn syrup are exactly the same.
Bottom Line: Many studies have shown that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are identical in their effects on health and metabolism. Both are seriously harmful when consumed in excess.
Added Sugar is Bad, Fruit is Not
It’s important to keep in mind that none of this “fructose is bad” talk applies to whole fruit.
This only applies to added sugars, when consumed in large amounts, in the context of a high calorie, Western diet.
Take Home Message
Commonly used high fructose corn syrup (HFCS 55) is virtually identical to regular table sugar.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that one is worse than the other.
In other words, they are both equally bad.