Rating: cut back
Sweetener: Soft drinks, other processed foods.
Our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has soared since around 1980. That’s because this sweet syrupy liquid is cheaper and easier for some companies to use than sugar. HFCS has been blamed by some for the obesity epidemic, because rates of obesity have climbed right along with HFCS consumption. But that’s an urban myth. HFCS and sugar are equally harmful. We’re consuming far too much of both.
HFCS starts out as cornstarch. Companies use enzymes or acids to break down most of the starch into its glucose subunits. Then other enzymes convert different proportions of the glucose to fructose. The resulting syrups contain as much as 90 percent fructose, but most HFCS is 42 percent or 55 percent fructose. In 2013, about 59 pounds of corn sweeteners, mostly HFCS, and 68 pounds of cane and beet sugar were produced per capita in the United States. A total of 128 pounds of all caloric sweeteners, down 15 percent from the 1999 high of 152 pounds, was produced per person. And, because of all the criticism (not fully deserved) of HFCS in recent years, HFCS consumption declined by about 32 percent between 1999 and 2013. Much of that decline resulted from declining soft drink consumption (thanks to increased health consciousness and to the popularity of bottled water), while the rest reflects food manufacturers switching back to ordinary sugar. Actual consumption (as opposed to production) of caloric sweeteners, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was 76 pounds per person in 2013.
Some people think that HFCS is mostly fructose, which does probably play a significant role in obesity. However, HFCS, on average, is about half fructose and half glucose—the same as ordinary table sugar (sucrose) when it is metabolized by the body. When sugar is used in soft drinks, much of it is broken down to glucose and fructose right in the bottle. If the big soda companies weren’t using HFCS, they’d be using regular sugar, and the extra cost would only be a couple of cents per can, a difference that would have little effect on consumption.
Modest amounts of HFCS are safe. However, large amounts promote tooth decay, as well as increase triglyceride (fat) levels in blood, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Also, recent studies show that consuming 25 percent of calories from HFCS or fructose leads to more visceral (deep belly) fat or liver fat. Those changes may increase the risk of diabetes or heart disease. Finally, large amounts of fructose from HFCS or sugar consumed on a regular basis also may affect levels of such hormones as insulin, leptin, and ghrelin that regulate appetite, thereby contributing to weight gain and obesity. The HFCS 55 that is used in most soft drinks contains about 10 percent more fructose than sucrose. That makes most soft drinks a bit more harmful than if they were made with sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (America’s basic nutrition policy) recommends that people consume no more than about 10 percent of calories (12 teaspoons in a 2,000-calorie diet) in the form of refined sugars. The American Heart Association has a stricter recommendation: six teaspoons of refined sugars per day for women and nine teaspoons for men. That’s far less than the current average of 13 percent of calories. The bottom line: the less added sugars—fructose, dextrose, sucrose, or HFCS—one consumes the better.