This debate has been raging for some time. Critics of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) claim that it’s unnatural and tied to high blood pressure, kidney disease and diabetes. Supporters of high fructose corn syrup maintain that it’s safe and that your body cannot tell the difference because HFCS and table sugar as each contain similar amounts of the basic components that make up these sweeteners: fructose and glucose. But a new study published in the journal Metabolism did find a slight difference.
Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the University of Florida examined fructose levels in the blood of 40 subjects after they consumed 24 ounces of a drink sweetened with either HFCS or sucrose (table sugar). They found higher levels of blood fructose in those who drank the HFCS beverage, as well as higher blood pressure readings and higher levels of uric acid, a substance that in excess is tied to kidney damage and gout.
The scientists who conducted the study say the differences may be due to how the body processes the fructose in HFCS compared to that in table sugar. In any case, the main culprit here seems to be fructose. Humans have never consumed this much, and the concentrations we gobble down don’t occur in nature. For example, one cup of blueberries naturally contains around 85 calories and 7 grams of fructose, along with nearly 4 grams of fiber, a gram of protein and dozens of nutrients. In contrast, a 12 oz can of cola sweetened with HFCS contains about 150 calories, no fiber or nutrients, and nearly 25 grams of fructose.
While HFCS may be derived from corn, I personally don’t believe it should be considered natural—you can’t find HFCS itself in nature, as it’s man-made, and you can’t make it in your own kitchen. And while it may enhance the properties of processed foods, it offers no nutritional advantage.
Just be sure that you don’t simply replace HFCS with high amounts of other sweeteners—even natural ones. The average consumption of added sugar in the U.S. today is a whopping 22 teaspoons each day, over 350 calories worth, and reducing all forms of concentrated sweeteners is an important key to weight control and optimal health.
If you’re trying to scale back here are a few tips:
• Gradually reduce the amount of sweetener you add to your coffee and up the flavor factor with natural seasonings like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground vanilla bean.
• Rather than adding syrup of any kind to oatmeal mash fruit to release its natural juices. You can use fresh or frozen, thawed or warmed berries or cherries.
• Instead of swirling sweetener into your iced tea add a splash of 100% fruit juice or freeze juice, bits of real fruit and seasonings like mint or citrus zest in ice cube trays to add color and flavor to your drinks.
• When baking reduce the sugar in recipes and add pureed fruit or mashed banana.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.