Understanding High Fructose Corn Syrup

Understanding High Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a caloric sweetener derived from corn. It is suitable for use in a wide range of beverages and foods, including ready-to-eat cereals, meat products, sauces, condiments, soft drinks and other beverages. Although HFCS has replaced sucrose in many prepared foods and beverages in the U.S., sucrose remains the primary sweetener used in the U.S. and around the world.

Composition, Safety and Metabolism

High fructose corn syrup was given its name to distinguish it from regular corn syrup. Regular corn syrup contains 100% glucose, which is only about 65% as sweet as sucrose (granulated sugar). In the 1970s, food researchers learned how to convert some of the glucose in corn syrup into fructose, which is sweeter than glucose. The sweetener developed for use in soft drinks had a sweetness level comparable to sucrose and was called HFCS55 because it contained 55% fructose.

While its name might suggest that HFCS is “high” in fructose relative to sucrose, this is not the case. Sucrose contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose, which is very similar to the 55% fructose and 45% glucose composition of HFCS55. Since many soft drinks contain about 10 grams of sweetener per 100 ml, the small difference in fructose content between HFCS55 and sucrose translates into just 1.25 grams more of fructose per 250 ml (about 8 fluid ounces) when HFCS55 is used

High-fructose corn syrup was granted “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) in 1983. It is safe for all populations to consume, including children and pregnant and nursing women. HFCS is absorbed and metabolized by the body in exactly the same way as sucrose, and like sucrose, HFCS provides 4 calories (17 kilojoules) per gram or 16 calories per teaspoon.


HFCS has been widely adopted by U.S. food manufacturers because it offers advantages over granulated sucrose, including supply, stability and ease of handling. Corn is an abundant and reliable crop grown widely across the U.S., while sucrose production is limited. This means most supplies must be imported into the U.S. from sugar-growing countries, which leaves the supply vulnerable to changes in the weather and political conditions in those countries. HFCS is also more stable, particularly in acidic beverages, and because of its liquid form, it is easier to transport, handle, and mix than granulated sucrose.

Common Sweeteners: Glucose and Fructose Content (Percent)

Graph: Common Sweeteners - Glucose and Fructose Content (Percent)

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HFCS: Understanding the Controversy and the Science

U.S. consumer concerns about HFCS began in 2004, following widespread media attention of a commentary published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) on HFCS and obesity that speculated that differences in the sweetness, fructose content or satiety value of HFCS versus sucrose could be linked to rising obesity rates in the U.S. Subsequently, numerous research articles were published by other scientists verifying that HFCS is not ‘‘sweeter’’ or metabolized any differently than sucrose, and that it has the same effect on insulin levels and the body’s signals for satiety as sucrose. Although one of the co-authors of the AJCN article later explained that the commentary was designed to simply stimulate scientific discussion and the theories presented have been found to be incorrect, the doubts planted in the minds of consumers and the media remain.

In 2008, the American Medical Association (AMA) reviewed the relevant research related to HFCS to address consumer concern regarding this sweetener. In its statement, the AMA noted that, “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.” However, the AMA also encouraged independent research on the health effects of HFCS and other sweeteners and recommended that consumers limit all added caloric sweeteners in keeping with recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Respected health authorities agree that obesity is a serious problem that results from a complex interplay of many factors including overconsumption of calories, sedentary lifestyle, genetics, and psychological, environmental and social issues.

Today, most experts agree that HFCS and sucrose are so similar that substituting one for the other will have no distinguishable impact on obesity or health. Of course, all calories count, whether from sucrose, HFCS, or any other source. Unfortunately, consumer confusion and concern about HFCS continue to be fueled by a widespread lack of understanding regarding the meaning of its name, its actual composition and its similarity to sucrose.


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