Dr. Fuhrman Dr. Fuhrman

Dangerfoods: HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)


The second article in the series about dangerfoods is about High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCS. Is HFCS the cause of the American obesity epidemic, or is it a totally natural sweetener that can be part of a healthy diet?

What is HFCS?

HFCS is a sweetener made from corn starch. Normally corn syrup is very high in glucose, while table sugar is about 50% glucose, 50% fructose. Through enzymatic processing the fructose content of HFCS is increased to a level similar to that of table sugar. Most corn syrups that are used for soft drinks are 45% glucose, 55% fructose. The proportions in HFCS that is used for other products, such as jams and cookies are 58% glucose/42% fructose.

What are the claims?

The most important claim against HFCS is that it is responsible for the obesity and diabetes epidemic in America.

What is the evidence?

Fructose has some good an some bad properties, but ultimately that does not matter much because HFCS is not actually high in fructose. It is only higher in fructose relative to normal corn syrup. Relative to table sugar it is slightly higher (the 55% variant) or slightly lower (the 42% variant) in fructose. Studies also indicate that people react similar to sugar and HFCS. All the scaremongering sites I found cite studies that use a fructose solution, not HFCS.

Another argument against HFCS is that it is so cheap that companies put it in everything, so that people are consuming much more empty calories than they want to consume. I think this is a valid argument for all added sugars. In the US, HFCS is the cheapest sweetener. In Europe, it is cane sugar, beet sugar or glucose syrup. Around here, HFCS is virtually unknown and sugar is in everything, and guess what? We also face an obesity epidemic.

The scariest thing about the demonization of HFCS is that people start to look at ordinary sugar as healthy. I cringe when I hear people go out of their way to find regular sugar sweetened coke, because they are afraid of HFCS. HFCS is bad for you, but so is sugar, especially in the form of soft drinks. Americans consume on average 30 teaspoons, or 475 calories of added sweeteners per day (200 calories from HFCS and 275 from sugar and other sweeteners). If you eat that much empty blood sugar skyrocketing calories, it really doesn't matter if it is ordinary sugar, honey, maple syrup or HFCS: your health is in jeopardy anyway.

My conclusion

I think that if you reduced your sweeteners consumption from 30 teaspoons per day to 30 teaspoons per month it wouldn't matter if those teaspoons were sugar or HFCS. Current evidence suggests that HFCS is just as unhealthy as sugar. I think a little sugar is not harmful, but if you are eating processed foods -- not just cookies and soda, but also bread, tomato sauce products, salad dressings and soy milk, to name a few, you likely get more added sugars than you realize.

I'd advise to skip the cookies and soda entirely and to look for healthy brands of or make your own bread, tomato sauce, soymilk and dressings. The big danger about added sugars is that it is too easy to eat too much of it. If you eat a diet that consists primarily of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and whole grains, I would not worry about an occasional teaspoon of sugar or HFCS. HFCS itself does not cause obesity. Eating more calories than you burn does cause obesity.

See also: Fruit Consumption Decreases Waist Circumference

July 13, 2006