What is High Fructose Corn Syrup – HFCS ?
High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from maize (corn). Its use became popular in the 1970’s . To make HFCS, starch is removed from maize and made in to the fructose – glucose liquid sweetener. Unlike sucrose which is a 50-50 combination of fructose and glucose, HFCS is 55% fructose, 42% glucose and 3% higher saccharides .
Fortunately in Australia we use cane sugar. In other countries such as America, HFCS is commonly used as a cheaper alternative to sucrose. It is also sweeter, easier to use and has a better stability.
Why is high fructose corn syrup bad for our health?
There is concern that the consumption of HFCS may lead to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions including insulin resistance, obesity, raised levels of triglycerides and high blood pressure.
Many researchers have speculated that HFCS may be largely responsible for the rise in obesity rates in the US. They suggest that it is metabolised differently to other sugars and more of the energy is converted to fat, largely stored around the abdomen [1,2]. A study conducted by Princeton University showed that rats fed a diet of rat chow and water sweetened with HFCS became obese and had significantly higher levels of circulating triglycerides compared to the rats fed a rat chow and water sweetened with sucrose . The amount of sucrose added to the drinking water was equivalent to that present in an average soft drink whereas the amount of HFCS added to the other groups water was half the amount normally added to soft drink .
Another study followed three groups of participants consuming 3 drinks per day sweetened with either glucose, fructose or HFCS. All of the participants were healthy and had undertaken blood tests prior to the experiment . The sweeteners made up 25% of their daily energy requirements. The study outcome showed an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with the consumption of added fructose and HFCS – this is presented in the table below. As you can see, fructose and particularly HFCS had significant affects on cholesterol whereas glucose only had a minimal impact .
Source: J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 .
Possible reasons for the negative health implications
When the body is processing HFCS and converting it to energy, it produces higher (unhealthy) levels of triglyceride fats than would normal sugar . Another differentiating factor from sucrose is that the fructose molecules in HFCS are not bound to the glucose molecules, they are free due to manufacturing. Fructose obtained from sugar cane is bound to glucose and therefore requires an additional step in metabolism .
There is also the possibility that HFCS is more addictive than other sugars.
Why would the fructose in HFCS be worse than natural fructose?
This is largely due to the types of foods we find HFCS in. Natural fructose found in fruit comes with a lot of fibre as well which slows down metabolism and hence the digestion rate of the sugar. It is therefore low GI. High fructose corn syrup on the other hand is mostly found in highly processed foods that have little to no fibre present and are often high GI. The GI is also important as it will affect blood sugar levels.
Fructose that is not from natural sources and/or accompanied with fibre can also have negative impacts e.g. the fructose in fruit juice acts similar to that in HFCS due to the absence of fibre slowing down the rate of absorption [1,2].
Most Australian products shouldn’t contain HFCS but be cautious and read labels of imported products. The blame for overweight and obesity definitely can’t be placed on HFCS alone. There are always a number of factors that lead to weight gain. However, we know that consumption of HFCS is not healthy for us and potentially increases the risk of metabolic syndrome. By steering clear of HFCS you will inadvertently be reducing the amount of processed foods/ drinks you consume which is also a good thing!
It is important to remember however that all added sugars should be avoided for optimal health.
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist. If you have questions about healthy eating, make an appointment. We‘ll provide you with a simple and effective routine targeted to your concerns. Contact us today!