Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad for You? Lies vs. Evidence

is high fructose corn syrup bad for you
Photo credit goes to Windell Oskay.

Over the past couple of years, there has been much debate among the scientific community and laypeople about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Unless you’re a big time hippy-like Amish living on a different planet (no offense, of course), you know that high fructose corn syrup is almost unavoidable at this point in time. It’s found in soft drinks, packaged foods, candies, ice cream, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t consume HFCS on a daily basis, let alone someone who avoids it completely.

So, HFCS is all over the place. The question is: is it inherently bad? Is it really contributing to the obesity epidemic like some evidence suggests and like some gurus would like you to believe?

Instead of using scare tactics and sensationalism to invoke an emotional response, this post is going to look at the evidence in an objective manner and give you an answer to the question proposed in the title. Contrary to common belief, the answer is not a simple one, and HFCS might not be the devil like the  ‘experts’ want you to believe.

So is high fructose corn syrup bad for you? Let’s find out.

First off, we’ll take a look at what HFCS actually is for those of you who don’t know.

Brief Intro on HFCS and How it Came About

I don’t want to get into the entire history of HFCS, as it would take an entire post to do so (check out this post if you’re interested). I just want to briefly touch on a few points.

HFCS was originally created due to the fact that sucrose tends to break down in an acidic environment. Because HFCS is a syrup, it remains stable no matter the acidity of the food or beverage, so it became a very viable alternative to the previously utilized sweetener sucrose (which is half glucose, half fructose).

Essentially, HFCS was adopted as a major sweetener because it is much cheaper and much more stable under acidic environments than its sweet buddy sucrose.

Now, there two main types of HFCS: you have HFCS-42 (42% fructose) and HFCS-55 (55% fructose). Which one is used depends on the type of beverage or food and the company that created it. So as you can see, based on it’s make-up, HFCS is not significantly different from sucrose.

The name high fructose corn syrup is often very misleading, as it causes people to believe that it contains an abnormally high amount of fructose. This is not the case, and in the instance of HFCS-42, it can actually contain less fructose than sucrose. To quote independent researcher John White, “The original intent of the name was simply to distinguish it from ordinary, glucose-containing corn syrup” (4).

So HFCS is not exactly high in fructose when compared to all other sweeteners, but it is when compared to the mainly glucose corn syrup. Don’t get the two (HFCS vs. corn syrup) mixed up.

Common Arguments Against HFCS

So now that you have an idea of what HFCS is and why it is used, I’m going to delve into some of the more common arguments made against high fructose corn syrup, and we’ll see if they hold any weight.

1. High fructose corn syrup makes you hungry.

One of the more common arguments against HFCS consumption is that it makes you ravenous, pushing you to consume more sugary treats. However, this argument is not supported by research.

When a HFCS sweetened beverage was compared to a sucrose-sweetened beverage and milk, they found no difference in subsequent energy intake (1). Furthermore, another study comparing the consumption of HFCS-sweetened beverages (42 and 55) and sucrose-sweetened beverages to 1% milk and no beverage found no significant difference in hunger and subsequent energy intake (2).

So, the claim that HFCS causes one to bypass their hunger signals leading them to consume more calories is absurd and not supported by evidence (1, 2, 3, 4).

2. High fructose corn syrup makes you fat.

In 2004, George Bray et al published a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled, “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity” (5). As you’ve probably guessed, this article caused quite the reaction and pushed many folks onto the ‘demonize HFCS’ bandwagon. However, there are a few issues with this analysis that I want to address.

First off, one of my main qualms with this particular paper is that they tend to focus on fructose in the first half of the paper when discussing metabolism.

This is a bit misleading because fructose is not the only sugar in HFCS as we discussed earlier. So, acting as if high fructose corn syrup is metabolized in the same fashion as pure fructose is incorrect. You cannot talk about HFCS without talking about the combination of glucose and fructose. Singling out fructose gets us nowhere in a discussion about HFCS.

Also, from the conclusions of the paper, the authors state “we believe that an argument can now be made that the use of HFCS in beverages should be reduced and that HFCS should be replaced with alternative noncaloric sweeteners” (5). Now, of course there would be improvement in weight loss if one cut out large amounts of HFCS in favor of a non-caloric sweetener. Excess caloric intake seems to be the problem (6).

Less calories equals less weight gain or more weight loss. No argument there, but the paper’s conclusions tend to agree with the fact that calories are the main determinant of weight gain and weight loss, not the consumption of high fructose corn syrup.

To sum up a bit: If you believe the previous argument that HFCS makes you hungry, it makes sense to believe this one. HFCS makes you hungry, therefore you eat more food, and viola, you get fat as a result of overeating. However, it’s not quite that simple.

First of all, it’s important to understand that calories count. HFCS is not going to bypass thermodynamics with its magical syrupy powers of greatness. So even if someone consumes five Cokes a day, if they’re not going over their caloric expenditure with the rest of their caloric intake including the sodas, they’re not going to gain fat.

Of course, it’s very easy to over-consume foods and drinks that contain a large amount of HFCS, but that’s not the point. There is simply no solid evidence to support the notion that HFCS is inherently fattening, assuming one stays within their calorie requirements (4).

To point out another fact: HFCS is not significantly different from sucrose and honey as far as makeup and function go. So singling out HFCS while ignoring sweeteners such as honey and sucrose is unscientific and misleading (4). Check out the video explanation below by Jim Laidler, MD.

3. High fructose corn syrup is man-made, therefore it’s inherently bad.

Nowadays, we have this weird obsession with the word ‘natural’. Oh, it’s natural, so it must be fine.

On the flip side, everything that’s not “natural” and is processed/refined is considered evil and should be avoided at all costs. This is a false dichotomy, and many are extremely hypocritical with this point.

I’m going to pick on the Paleo folks once again, because you guys crack me up with this one: the Paleo extremists go out of their way to insult refined and processed foods, yet encourage the consumption of large amounts of coconut oil, which is a largely refined product.

The main point here is that just because a food product is man-made, that doesn’t make it “unhealthy” or “evil”, unless of course there is evidence to back up the assertion.

So don’t go all ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ because you believe it is infinitely better for your health. Sure, whole foods are more nutrient dense than most processed foods, but that does not mean processed and refined foods are bad and should be condemned.

4. Consumption of HFCS has risen, and obesity is more rampant than ever, so there must be a connection.

Not so fast.

Contrary to common belief, caloric sweetener consumption has gone down over the past several years while obesity and diabetes remain on the rise. So, there is clearly no causal relationship there, as James Krieger explains in the video below. Also, below the video is a chart showing the decrease in consumption of caloric sweeteners in general, as well as a decrease in HFCS consumption from 1970-2010.

is high fructose corn syrup bad for you

So as of right now, there is no evidence that HFCS is uniquely and inherently fattening, and there’s no evidence that it is having a casual impact on obesity and diabetes rates (4).

Context and Dosage

“The dose makes the poison.” – Paracelsus

As with anything else, context and dosage must be considered. Those who vilify HFCS as inherently fattening and damaging are failing to look at the big picture and are missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

You cannot take one subgroup of a macronutrient (in this case, HFCS as a carbohydrate) and blindly point the finger. Of course, someone who drinks ten sodas per day in a sedentary environment is not going to be healthy, and no one is arguing against this point. Context is key, and it’s something that is often lost among the fear mongers and sensationalists.

In the context of an overall balanced diet, there’s no evidence that HFCS in a moderate dosage is damaging in any way. Assuming you’re consuming adequate micronutrients, fiber, water, etc., a soda or two is not going to ruin your life. In fact, they may even be beneficial from a psychological standpoint, as they may make it easier for an individual to adhere to a diet without feeling overly restricted.

So, ignoring context and dosage and vilifying a subgroup of a nutrient as inherently evil is misleading and overly simplistic at best, and harmful at worst.

There’s no need to be obsessive over consumption of HFCS. Anything in excessive amounts can be toxic, so you must consider the dosage and context.

So, Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad for You?……..It Depends

Yeah, yeah, I know this isn’t a revolutionary and emotion-invoking conclusion, but it’s the truth.

This answer is not going to qualify me for crazy book sales, a television special, and a cult-like following, but if you look at the cold hard facts, it’s the real answer. And I like to keep it real.

Sorry, I had to entertain myself a bit, it’s been a long day.

Avoid the Conspiracy-Seeking, Pseudo-Scientific Nutjobs

Like I’ve mentioned several times, people attempt to use words with extremely negative connotations such as ‘evil’, ‘toxic’, ‘devil’, etc. when describing HFCS. These people are simply trying to invoke emotion and get the public more alarmed and obsessive about their food choices than they already are.

Again, I’m not advocating that someone eat a carton of Stater Bros ice cream or drink fifteen sodas per day. But I am advocating that you keep an open mind and understand that these things can certainly be a part of a healthy diet, and should not be thought of as inherently dangerous or damaging.

For everyone who reads this blog consistently, or if you’re just a one-time visitor, I highly recommend you give the Evil Sugar Radio Podcast a listen (no, they don’t claim that sugar is evil, the name is simply to poke fun at the gurus). Scott and Antonio (the hosts of the show) offer an unbiased look into the various claims floating around the nutrition industry, and they give solid information that empowers people to think for themselves.

Give it a listen, and share it with your friends. These guys are extremely entertaining, and the movement they are promoting is a very positive one and it needs to become as widespread as possible.

One more thing: it seems to be a trend nowadays to go against the establishment. It makes you feel like a rebel of some sort. People will go against anything created by the food industry (HFCS) just because. This is an extremely closed-minded way of thinking, and it can lead you in the wrong direction.

I would encourage you to look at the totality of the evidence and make a decision for yourself. Don’t fall for the alarmist conspiracy theories as most of the time, they are based upon unsubstantiated claims.

Wrap Up

Just as a recap, let’s go over some of the main points that I wanted to get across with this article.

1. No food, food group, nutrient, or vitamin/mineral should be vilified as ‘evil’ or ‘toxic’ without the consideration of the dosage and the context of which that dosage applies. Making all-encompassing statements without considering these factors is misleading and dishonest.

2. If someone demonizes HFCS without mentioning the fact sucrose and honey are almost identical in makeup and function, they’re full of shit.

3. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. This is the major problem I have with many of the debates about the causes of obesity. You cannot look at one thing and say it’s the surefire cause; that’s a huge oversimplification. We saw it when everyone thought fat was the cause, and we’re seeing the same thing now with sugar and HFCS. To be honest, it’s quite insulting to suggest that there is such a simple solution, as many individuals have dedicated their lives to studying the causes of obesity. It’s not simple, folks.

4. HFCS is not inherently fattening, and it does not cause you to overeat when compared to sucrose sweetened beverages, milk, and no beverage at all (1, 2, 3, 4).

Hopefully this post provides some perspective and clarity to the debate revolving around high fructose corn syrup. My overall recommendation, as with everything else, is to keep consumption of HFCS in moderation, and understand that it can be a part of a healthy diet and that it’s not inherently evil.

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1. Soenen S, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. No differences in satiety or energy intake after high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or milk preloads. Am J Clin Nutr.2007;86:1586–94. Free full text.

2. Monsivais P, Perrigue MM, Drewnowski A. Sugars and satiety: does the type of sweetener make a difference? Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:116–23. Free full text.

3. Melanson KJ, Angelopoulos TJ, Nguyen V, Zukley L, Lowndes J, Rippe JM 2008 High-fructose corn syrup, energy intake, and appetite regulation. Am J Clin Nutr 88:1738S–1744S. Free full text.

4. White JS. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88:1716S–21S. Free full text.

5. Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM. Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79:537–43. Free full text.

6. Swinburn B, Sacks G, Ravussin E. Increased food energy supply is more than sufficient to explain the US epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90:1453–6. Free full text.

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