Health experts continue to debate whether or not high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse than other sugars. Many natural and organic health advocates argue that HFCS is more dangerous than other sugars.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explain that HFCS is not more dangerous than other sugars, but research on the topic is ongoing.
HFCS is not necessary for a healthful diet. In fact, avoiding it may help a person maintain a healthful weight.
What is HFCS?
HFCS is a very sweet derivative of corn starch.
Starch consists of chains of glucose, which is a sugar. Breaking corn starch down into individual glucose molecules forms corn syrup.
To create HFCS, manufacturers add enzymes to corn syrup that convert some of the glucose to fructose. Fructose is the type of sugar present in fruit and is very sweet. The amount of fructose in HFCS varies, but the most common varieties contain either 42% or 55%.
As with HFCS, table sugar, or sucrose, also consists of glucose and fructose.
Is HFCS safe?
Research has consistently shown links between the consumption of HFCS and obesity, metabolic dysregulation, and similar health issues.
According to a 2017 study of mice, HFCS consumption increased fasting glucose and reduced the ability of mice to clear glucose from the body. The study also found changes in dopamine signaling in the group that consumed HFCS.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects feelings of motivation and reward. Past research has linked impaired dopamine signaling to obesity.
Contrary to some previous studies, HFCS did not increase body weight. This suggests that HFCS may undermine health even if it does not cause weight gain.
A 2012 analysis of 43 countries found that rates of diabetes are 20% higher in those where HFCS is readily available.
Several other studies have linked HFCS availability to higher rates of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. However, this research is correlational and does not mean that HFCS directly causes these conditions. In countries where HFCS is prevalent, people might prefer sweetened foods or consume larger quantities of all types of sugar.
This is why dissecting claims about whether or not HFCS is safe is difficult. Most research suggests that HFCS availability correlates with an increase in health issues. However, HFCS availability also correlates more generally with high sugar consumption.
The FDA and most other public health agencies emphasize that HFCS, as with other added sugars, can increase the risk of diabetes and other health concerns.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that HFCS is inherently more harmful than other sugars.
The problem with HFCS is its prevalence. It is present in numerous foods, including those that do not taste sweet, such as pizza and crackers.
Foods that contain HFCS
Almost all sodas contain high quantities of HFCS.
Many foods contain HFCS, so this list is by no means exhaustive.
The most common sources of this ingredient include:
- Soda: Almost all sodas contain HFCS, often in very large quantities.
- Sweetened juices: Some fruit juices, including those that manufacturers market to children, contain HFCS.
- Processed desserts: Packaged sweets, including candy, prepackaged cookies, muffins, and other desserts, often include HFCS.
- Packaged fruits: Some applesauce, cranberry sauce, dried fruit snacks, and other fruit-based snacks contain HFCS as a sweetener.
- Crackers: Some crackers, mixed snack packages, and other cracker-like products use HFCS to increase sweetness.
- Condiments and salad dressings: Many condiments, even salty ones such as ketchup, use HFCS as a sweetener. Check the labels of salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and other condiments.
- Prepackaged meals: A variety of prepackaged meals, including some pizzas, contain HFCS.
- Granola and nutrition bars: Granola bars, protein bars, and other purportedly healthful snacks often use sweeteners to improve the taste. HFCS is one of the most popular sweeteners in these products.
- Peanut and other nut butters: Peanut butter might seem to be a savory treat, but it is actually very sweet. Many peanut butter manufacturers add sugar, and some add HFCS. The same is true of some other nut butters, such as cashew and almond butter.
- Some bread and wheat: Some sweetened breads and wheats, including some pastas, contain HFCS.
How to check the label
To minimize HFCS intake, people can avoid foods that include it high up on the ingredient list.
HFCS is usually visible on a product’s label.
Manufacturers must list ingredients in order from highest to lowest quantity.
This means that the first few ingredients on a label are present in the largest quantities.
So, people who want to minimize their HFCS intake should avoid any foods that list HFCS among the first few ingredients.
In 2010, in response to increased concerns about the dangers of HFCS, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar. The FDA rejected the request, citing concerns about consumer confusion.
However, it is possible that the name might change in the future.
Because HFCS is not the only sugar that can cause health problems, it is important to also look for other sugars. Sugar goes by at least 61 names on nutrition labels, including:
- barley malt
- rice syrup
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that men consume no more than 150 calories of added sugar per day. This is equivalent to 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams (g). Women should restrict their intake of added sugar to no more than 100 calories per day, which is equivalent to 6 teaspoons, or 25 g.
The debate regarding the risks of HFCS continues. As with other sugars, there is no need to include HFCS in a healthful diet. In fact, its inclusion may increase the risk of numerous health issues.
Limiting HFCS consumption can help a person reduce their sugar intake, potentially supporting their weight loss or health goals.
People who want to limit their HFCS intake may feel frustrated by the abundance of food that contains HFCS. People who cannot eliminate HFCS from their diet can still reap health benefits by reducing consumption.
They can achieve this by limiting soda intake and eating fewer processed snacks.