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For decades, high fructose corn syrup has been used as a sweetener in processed foods.
Supposedly high in fructose, it has been heavily criticized for its negative health effects.
Many people claim that it is even more harmful than other sugar-based sweeteners.
But how does high fructose corn syrup really compare to regular sugar? Is it any worse?
Let’s have a look…
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener derived from corn syrup, which is processed from corn.
It is used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks, primarily in the USA.
Similarly to regular table sugar (sucrose), it is composed of both fructose and glucose.
It became a popular sweetener in the late 1970’s when the price of regular sugar was high, while corn prices were low due to government subsidies.
However, the use of high fructose corn syrup has started declining slightly, in line with the rising popularity of artificial sweeteners.
The graph below shows trends for sweetener consumption in the US, in the years 1966-2009 (1):
The blue line shows the consumption of regular sugar, while the red line shows the consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which skyrocketed between 1975 and 1985.
How is High Fructose Corn Syrup Produced?
High fructose corn syrup is made from corn (maize), which is usually genetically modified.
The corn is first milled to produce corn starch.
Then the corn starch is processed even further to produce corn syrup (2).
Corn syrup consists mostly of glucose. To make it sweeter and more similar in taste to regular sugar (sucrose), some of that glucose is converted to fructose, using enzymes.
Several different types of high fructose corn syrup are available, with varying proportions of fructose. For example, the most concentrated form contains 90% fructose, and is called HFCS 90.
The most commonly used type is HFCS 55 (55% fructose, 42% glucose).
HFCS 55 is very similar to sucrose (regular table sugar), which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.
High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Regular Sugar
There are only tiny differences between the most common type of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS 55) and regular sugar.
First of all, high fructose corn syrup is liquid, containing 24% water, whereas table sugar is dry and granulated.
In terms of chemical structure, the fructose and glucose in high fructose corn syrup are not bound together like in granulated sugar (sucrose).
Instead, they “float” separately alongside each other.
These differences do not affect nutritional value or health properties in any way.
In our digestive system, sugar is broken down into fructose and glucose, so corn syrup and sugar end up looking exactly the same.
Gram for gram, HFCS 55 has slightly higher levels of fructose than regular sugar. The difference is very small and not particularly relevant from a health perspective.
Of course, if we were comparing regular sugar with HFCS 90 (90% fructose), then regular sugar would be far more desirable, as excessive consumption of fructose can be very harmful.
However, HFCS 90 is rarely used, and then only in tiny amounts due to its extreme sweetness (3).