A calorie is a calorie and a sweetener is sweetener. Period. The myth that high fructose corn syrup is making us fat in a unique way should stop there. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
When it comes to counting calories from sweets, the math is simple. All natural sweeteners—including sugar cane, sugar beets, corn, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and others—are made up of two basic sugars called glucose and fructose. Each of those sugars contains the same number of calories as all other carbohydrates: just four calories per gram. So a gram of fructose in table sugar is no more fattening than that same gram of fructose in honey, or in a sweetener made from corn.
It’s a common but unfortunate misconception that corn sugar, often called “high fructose corn syrup,” is substantially higher in fructose than table sugar. That’s not true. Its very name is, in fact, a misleading one.
Table sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. High fructose corn syrup is either 42 percent or 55 percent fructose, with the remainder being glucose. Nutritionally speaking, the two sweeteners are identical.
But false conventional wisdom has helped “green” eating activists and assorted other food cops to perpetuate the urban myth that table sugar is a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup.
In 2004, researchers George Bray and Barry Popkin published a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggesting that high fructose corn syrup was a unique contributor to obesity in America. Their research caused an enormous (but unfounded) controversy.
Bray’s and Popkin’s conclusions were so off-base that the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Associated Press that “the authors of this paper misunderstand chemistry, draw erroneous conclusions and have done a disservice to the public in generating this controversy.”
Meanwhile, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle explained at a 2004 TIME/ABC Summit on Obesity: “It’s basically no different from table sugar. Table sugar is glucose and fructose stuck together. Corn sweeteners are glucose and fructose separated. The body really can’t tell them apart.”
Since 2004 a handful of additional studies, by Popkin and others, have attempted to establish a link between fructose consumption and weight gain. They have largely failed.
At the same time, a steady drumbeat of scientific research has demonstrated that high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, and many other sweeteners all contain the same number of calories—and, more importantly, that high fructose corn syrup by itself is not a unique contributor to the national increase in obesity rates.
Still, the myth that table sugar is “healthy” and high fructose corn syrup is “unhealthy” has grown from a poorly researched scientific hypothesis into a full-blown urban myth. USA Today recently summarized the situation this way:
The hypothesis was controversial and launched a backlash against the corn-based sweetener ... It became nutritional dogma in some circles that sugar was healthy, and high-fructose corn syrup was not.
In 2008 the scientific community attempted to put this dogma to bed. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a special supplement of five studies examining high fructose corn syrup. Taken together, the five papers found that there was no evidence to suggest high fructose corn syrup is any different from table sugar.
One of the studies was authored by Popkin, who admitted to USA Today, “It doesn’t appear that when you consume high-fructose corn syrup, you have any different total effect on appetite than if you consume any other sugar.”
Also in June 2008, the American Medical Association issued a report about high fructose corn syrup, which concluded:
Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose are so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.
No one denies that sweeteners contain calories, or that consuming too much sugar in general will lead to weight gain. But the myth Bray, Popkin, and other researchers seek to perpetuate is that corn sugar (in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is responsible for increasing levels of obesity. The evidence simply doesn’t back them up.
What Others Say
Most of the nation’s foremost nutrition researchers and advocates agree that the corn-based sweetener is no different than table sugar.
“High fructose corn syrup is one of the most misunderstood products in the food supply.”
—Dr. David Ludwig, NBC Nightly News, April 22, 2009
“From what I hear these days, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is widely perceived as the new trans fat - something to be avoided at all costs. But, stop: HFCS is not poison. It is just sugar in liquid form, differing from common table sugar (sucrose) mainly in how it affects the texture of foods.”
— New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, San Francisco Chronicle, September 24, 2008
“The idea that high-fructose corn syrup is more harmful than sugar is an ‘urban myth’ … there would be no health benefit whatsoever if companies switched from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar.”
— Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) press release, February 6, 2008
“There are a number of [HFCS] critics who have not provided a shred of evidence that high fructose syrup is worse than sucrose.”
— CSPI, in QSR Magazine, August 2007
“HFCS has been blamed by a few people for the obesity epidemic, because rates of obesity have climbed right along with HFCS consumption. But that’s an urban myth. There isn’t a shred of evidence that HFCS is any more harmful (or healthier) than sugar.”
— CSPI’s “Food Additives” website, 2007
“Many scientists say that there is little data to back up the demonization of high-fructose corn syrup, and that links between [HFCS] and obesity are based upon misperceptions and unproved theories, or are simply coincidental.”
— Melanie Warner, food reporter, The New York Times, July 2, 2006
“There’s no substantial evidence to support the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow responsible for obesity. If there was no high-fructose corn syrup, I don’t think we would see a change in anything important.”
—Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Department Chairman Dr. Walter Willett, The New York Times, July 2, 2006