In 1970, sucrose was the main food and beverage sweetener used in the U.S. Sucrose, or “table sugar”, is composed of one glucose molecule linked to a molecule of fructose. In 1970, ~15% of America were obese. Today, obesity rates are around 35% and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has replaced sucrose in many foods and drinks. The question that has caught the attention of many over the past several years then is: What is the association between this dramatic increase in the consumption of HFCS and the skyrocketing obesity rates in the U.S. Let’s take a closer look at this issue and see what the peer-reviewed scientific literature has to say.
Why has HFCS replaced sucrose in many foods and drinks? That’s an interesting question, but first lets’ consider the source of HFCS. It is made by extracting starch from corn, and then treating the starch to release the glucose, followed by a procedure which converts about half of the glucose to fructose. HFCS is cheaper and more stable during storage than sucrose, explaining why food manufacturers prefer to use it as a sweetener.
Studies performed in the past decade suggested that there was a direct link between increased HFCS intake and obesity. This made sense since fructose is more easily converted to fat than glucose and it may alter hormonal signals that control feeding behavior differently from glucose. Again, interesting facts, but how is the sugar content of HFCS really different from sucrose? The answer is not very different, in fact, very similar. Sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, while HFCS contains either 55% fructose/42% glucose (in sodas) or 42% fructose/ 53% glucose (used in baked goods). So as you can see, the composition of HCFS and sucrose is very similar. Why then would HFCS lead to different health consequences as compared to consumption of sucrose? The answer is that it probably does not.
A survey of the scientific literature identifies several very recent papers that conclude that from a nutritional or health-related perspective, consuming sucrose versus HFCS is not different. One recent study found that HFCS and sucrose do not differentially affect levels of “energy-regulating hormones” in humans ( Nutr. Res., 2013). Another paper in the International Journal of Obesity concluded that there was a lack of evidence to link HFCS consumption with the current obesity epidemic (Int. J. Obes., 2013). It was also noted that there was inconclusive evidence to link HFCS to childhood obesity (Ped. Obes., 2013). The consensus on this issue thus seems to be shifting.
Nutrition science tells us that greater energy in than energy out leads to weight gain over time. Not only has HFCS intake increased over the past few decades, but total energy intake has as well. Perhaps the culprit is not HFCS, but rather a change in the typical American’s lifestyle towards more food intake and less activity. Future studies will undoubtedly address this important issue further, but in the meantime, will you avoid food and beverages sweetened with HFCS? How do you think it could positively influence your health if you switched to sucrose sweetened foods and drinks? Or maybe the best approach is to decrease intake of ALL sugar sweetened foods and decrease overall energy intake in that way. What will be your approach?