So Sugar Is Bad. Where Does That Leave HFCS?

Does regular sugar have the same effect on our bodies as high fructose corn syrup? If not, what’s the difference, and which is worse? Don’t believe corn refiners’ claims.

In the wake of a new report from scientists at the University of California, San Francisco that calls for stronger action to control the amount of sugar in our diets, we’re wondering where this leaves high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The scientists are concerned about the toxic effects that sugar could be having on our bodies, and they connect sugar to our increasing burden of non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Table sugar or high fructose corn syrup?

The report, published in the journal Nature, refers to all sugar, including refined sugar—not just high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is found in many sweetened food products, especially soft drinks. Does refined sugar (sucrose), derived from sugar cane or sugar beet, have the same effect on our bodies as HFCS?

After all, HFCS largely replaced sucrose in soft drinks and other foods in the early 1980s after refined sugar was vilified as bad. The food industry introduced HFCS as a healthy alternative—as well as a cheaper one. Ironically, food and soft drink manufacturers have been returning to sucrose for their products, calling it a “natural” sweetener, though this hasn’t stopped corn refiners from battling back with their own media war, their “sweet surprise” claiming that our bodies can’t tell the difference between HFCS and table sugar.

What’s a poor consumer to think?

Fortunately, scientists who wanted to find answers to the same question have just published a study in the journal Metabolism. Dr. MyPhoung Lee of the University of Colorado and Dr. Julie Johnson of the University of Florida evaluated 40 men and women after they consumed 24 ounces of soft drinks sweetened with either sugar (sucrose) or HFCS.

It turns out our bodies can tell the difference

The researchers took blood and urine samples over six hours and measured blood pressure, heart rate, fructose, and other metabolic biomarkers. Their results showed that participants who drank the HFCS-sweetened drinks had significantly higher fructose levels than those who drank the sugar-sweetened drinks. Uric acid levels (associated with high blood pressure) were increased and systolic blood pressure levels were 3 mm Hg higher for the HFCS group.

Why the difference?

They found the difference in how much fructose was absorbed in the circulation was related to the makeup of the different sugars. Sucrose is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose bonded together as a disaccharide (complex carbohydrate) while HFCS is a mixture of free fructose (55 percent) and free glucose (45 percent). According to the researchers, the difference in the negative health effects associated with HFCS and sugar is a consequence of the difference in the fructose amount.

Curb the sweet tooth

Whether we’re consuming sugar in its “natural” form or as HFCS, the message seems to be: too much of either is definitely bad for our bodies. And should you assume that diet versions of your favourite sweetened beverages and treats help you in your quest to stay trim and healthy, you may want to read our article about the sweetener paradox.

It all boils down to this: if we want to live to be long in the tooth, we need to rein in our sweet tooth.


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