High Fructose Corn Syrup (Part 3)
HFCS vs. Corn Syrup vs. Sugar vs. Natural Sweeteners
No matter the source of sugar, you always should watch that your overall intake of sugar isn’t too high. But the question continues: Is HFCS more of a health risk than other sweeteners? To help answer this questions, let’s break down the main differences and similarities between the various sweeteners out there. What makes them good, and what makes them bad?
High Fructose Corn Syrup
- To create HFCS, caustic soda is used to shuck the corn kernel from its starch, and corn syrup is then created. Enzymes (commonly GMO) are introduced to convert the corn syrup’s sugars to super-sweet fructose.
- The alpha-amylase and glucoamylase used in HFCS processing have been genetically modified to improve their heat stability for the production of HFCS.
- HFCS contains no enzymes, vitamins or minerals, only sugar and calories.
- Since HFCS is produced from corn, a natural vegetable, some people try to say that it’s a natural sugar. But there is so much processing that goes on to produce and chemically alter corn to make it into HFCS that it’s so far from natural. Plus, so much of the corn today isn’t even natural itself because it’s being genetically modified by growers for bigger crop yields and more money.
- HFCS’s flavor is similar to sugar, but HFCS is sweeter and cheaper.
- Researchers who measured the relative sweetness of natural and artificial sweeteners found HFCS to be 1.5 times sweeter than table sugar. (22)
- HFCS is metabolized to fat in your body far more rapidly than any other sugar. (23)
- Unlike sugar, you’ll never see HFCS in the supermarket because it’s only available to food processors.
- Corn syrup is primarily made from the cornstarch of yellow No. 2 dent corn that’s converted to a syrup using sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid or various enzymes, and water.
- Cornstarch is converted into ordinary corn syrup through a process called acid hydrolysis.
- Ordinary corn syrup contains dextrose sugar, which is about three-quarters as sweet as the sucrose sugar in cane or beet sugar.
- High fructose corn syrup takes corn syrup and makes it even more processed and health-hazardous due to HFCS’s resulting high fructose content.
- Due to the ample supply of corn in this country, it’s expected that corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup will continue to be used extensively in consumable products.
- While it’s marketed and consumed today as a “natural” sweetener,” I agree with Dr. Jonny Bowden that agave nectar or agave syrup is basically high fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food. (24) According to Dr. Bowden, “Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that’s the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome (AKA prediabetes).”
- There is a debate in natural health and medical circles whether or not the health claims by manufacturers are true, making agave quite controversial.
- It’s about 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar and contains roughly 60 calories per tablespoon, which is about 20 calories more than the same amount of table sugar.
- Agave nectar is supposedly lower on the glycemic index (a number that represents the effect a particular food has on someone’s blood sugar), but these claims don’t seem to be founded on sound science.
- Even if agave nectar has a low glycemic index, it’s largely made of fructose, the single most damaging form of sugar.
- It has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener on the market.
- Compared to the 1:1 fructose/glucose ratio of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, agave nearly has a whopping 2:1 ratio.
- Both sugar and HFCS begin out in the field — sugar as sugarcane or the sugar beet and high fructose corn syrup as corn.
- Common white sugar or table sugar comes from sugarcane that undergoes washing and separation that produces naturally white crystals that are 99.9 percent sucrose. Raw sugar is less processed and contains 96 percent sucrose and 4 percent of plant materials contained in the mother liquid. (25)
- The fructose in HFCS is a monosaccharide or single sugar molecule while sugar’s sucrose consists of one molecule of glucose linked with one molecule of fructose.
- HFCS’s fructose can be directly absorbed through your small intestine into your blood while sucrose must be broken down into glucose plus fructose by an enzyme called sucrase present in the walls of your small intestine before the two resulting sugars are absorbed into your blood.
- Extra calories from sucrose- and fructose-sweetened foods can both increase fat accumulation in your blood, liver and fatty tissues, which increases your risk for developing diabetes and heart disease.
- Sucanat is a sugar product that comes from dehydrated sugarcane juice and retains all of the nutrients found in natural sugarcane juice, including iron, calcium, vitamin B6 and potassium.
- Brown sugar has molasses added into it, and it contains calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium while white sugar contains none of these. (26)
- White sugar and HFCS both provide empty, nutrition-less calories.
Natural Sweeteners (Minus Agave)
- Raw honey is a great example of a natural sweetener that not only sweetens, but is a true superfood with awesome health benefits. Even though it contains fructose, it’s also loaded with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Together, these essential nutrients help neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
- Stevia is native to South America and has been used for hundreds of years in that region to support healthy blood sugar levels and prompt weight loss.
- Fruits like dates and bananas make excellent sweeteners. While they do contain naturally occurring fructose, they also contain fiber, vitamins and minerals that make their processing in the body a lot more healthy than the fructose in HFCS or corn syrup. When the sugar in fruit is consumed, it doesn’t exhibit the same negative biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in corn sugars.
- Even natural sweeteners need to be used in moderation because even natural sugars raise your blood sugar, and high blood sugar levels lead to all kinds of health problems, including diabetes.
- In moderation, natural sugars, like those from fruit, have proven health benefits for those of us who don’t already have blood sugar problems.
Best Alternatives to High Fructose Corn Syrup
Some of the best alternatives to HFCS include TRULY natural sweeteners like raw honey and maple syrup. When you’re reading ingredient labels (which I hope you do), look for these natural sweeteners and steer clear of anything that contains high fructose corn syrup.
These are the top 10 natural sweeteners and HFCS alternatives I recommend:
- Raw Honey (1 tablespoon – 64 calories)
- Stevia (0 calories)
- Dates (1 Medjool date – 66 calories)
- Coconut Sugar (1 tablespoon – 45 calories)
- Maple Syrup (1 tablespoon – 52 calories)
- Blackstrap Molasses (1 tablespoon – 47 calories)
- Balsamic Glaze (1 tablespoon – 20–40 calories depending on thickness)
- Banana Puree (1 cup – 200 calories)
- Brown Rice Syrup (1 tablespoon – 55 calories)
- Real Fruit Jam (varies depending on fruit)
The Nefarious History of High Fructose Corn Syrup
Commercial production of corn syrup began in 1864. By 1967, the Clinton Corn Processing Co. of Iowa had an exclusive license to manufacture and begin shipping an early version of HCFS.
After being classified as “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA in 1976, HFCS began to replace sugar as the main sweetener of soft drinks in the U.S. At the same time, rates of obesity rose. That correlation, in combination with laboratory research and epidemiological studies, suggested a link between consuming large amounts of fructose and elevated blood triglycerides, uric acid levels and weight. Concern about the health effects of HFCS truly is decades old.
Since 1797, U.S. sugar tariffs and quotas have kept imported sugar prices high (up to twice the global price) while subsidies to corn growers keep the price of HFCS’s main ingredient, corn, down. In the 1970s, unfortunately, many companies looking for a cheaper sweetener rapidly adopted HFCS as their sweetener of choice due to its high availability and cheap price tag.
HFC’s source is corn, which is a highly dependable, renewable and abundant agricultural raw material. This has guarded HFCS from the price and availability extremes of sucrose or table sugar. Another reason HFCS is attractive to manufacturers is the fact that it’s stable in acidic foods and beverages.
Yet another big reason that HFCS remains in our consumable products given major health concerns? One word: lobbying. Huge corporations put a lot of time and money into lobbying efforts to ensure that government corn subsidies continue. In this country, the Corn Refiners Association has tried its best to counter negative public perceptions by marketing campaigns describing HFCS as “natural” and by attempting to change high fructose corn syrup’s name and identity to “corn sugar.” Thankfully, products in the U.S. that contain high fructose corn syrup are not allowed to use “natural” in their labeling, but the debate goes on. Earlier in 2016, the FDA was looking for feedback on the use of “natural” on food labeling. (27) Unfortunately, it’s still not clear to everyone, specifically to the powers that be, what should be considered natural these days.
To make things even worse, in recent years physicians are also directly targeted by the people who are behind the creation and continual push of HFCS. One doctor, Dr. Mark Hyman, says that he received a 12-page color glossy monograph from the Corn Refiners Association reviewing the “science” that HFCS was safe and no different than cane sugar. The Corn Refiners Association also warned him of the errors of his ways (his knocking of HFCS) and put him on “notice.” The fight against HFCS is real.
Final Thoughts on High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Avoid any products containing high fructose corn syrup or added fructose, which have many negative health effects on the body.
- Fruit juice, even the unsweetened variety, naturally contain fructose and should be consumed in very small quantities. Eating a whole fruit with its blood sugar-balancing fiber is a much better option than juice.
- A big way to avoid high fructose corn syrup is to completely remove ultra-processed foods from your diet.
- Another great way is to avoid all sweetened soft drinks. The average soda contains toxic levels of HFCS. Opt for naturally carbonated mineral water, herbal tea or green tea instead, but stick to home brews since the majority of commercially bottled iced teas are also loaded with HFCS.
- Overall, you want to keep your sugar intake low no matter whether the source is natural, “natural” or man-made.
- High fructose corn syrup definitely tops my list of health-hazardous ingredients to avoid as much as humanly possible.