Chemical Cuisine Rating

Cut Back

Purpose: Sweetener

Health Concerns: Cardiovascular, Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolism

Found in: Table sugar, sweetened foods


Sucrose, ordinary table sugar, occurs naturally in fruit, sugar cane, and sugar beets. Industry produced 68 pounds of sugar per person in 2013. That figure was down from 102 pounds per year in 1970, but the decrease has been more than made up for by increased use of high-fructose corn syrup and dextrose. In 2013, industry produced a total of about 128 pounds of total refined sugars per person, though because of waste and spoilage the average American actually consumed only about 76 pounds of all refined sugars (about 1.5 pounds per week). That repre­sents a 15-percent reduction from the 1999 high of 89 pounds. That historic decline resulted largely from declin­ing soft drink consumption (due partly to increased health concerns and to the popularity of bottled water).

Sugar and sweetened foods may taste good and supply energy, but most people eat too much of them. Sugar, corn syrup, and other refined sweeteners make up 13 percent of the average diet, but provide no vitamins, minerals, or protein. That means a person would have to get 100 percent of his or her nutrients from only 87 percent of his or her food. And, of course, some people, especially teen-aged boys, consume as much as 25 percent of their calories from refined sugars.

When sugar is digested, it breaks down into one fructose and one glucose (dextrose) molecule. Small amounts of fructose and glucose from fruits, vegetables, sugar, HFCS, or other sources are safe. However, large amounts of refined sugars promote tooth decay and displace nutrient-rich foods with empty calories. Furthermore, large amounts of glucose boost blood sugar levels and large amounts of fructose increase triglyceride (fat) levels and small, dense LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in blood, and may thereby increase the risk of heart disease. Also, recent studies show that consuming 25 percent of calories from fructose or HFCS (which is about half fructose) leads to more visceral (deep belly) fat or liver fat. Those changes may increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Finally, preliminary research suggests that large amounts of fructose may upset levels of such hormones as leptin and ghrelin, which regulate appetite, thereby contributing to weight gain and obesity.

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, glucose, sucrose, or HFCS—one consumes the better (though small amounts are safe).

Some companies have been replacing high-fructose corn syrup with sugar, pretending that that makes their products more healthful. In fact, there’s essentially no nutritional difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, so just ignore the marketing hype.

See our comprehensive Chemical Cuisine ratings of more than 150 food ingredients and additives.

Is that ingredient safe? Check Chemical Cuisine.

CSPI ranks the safety of food additives—from acetic acid to yellow prussiate of soda—in this definitive glossary of the chemicals used to flavor and preserve our foods.

Get Additive Smart