Here at Sketchy Science we publish a lot of articles about living a healthy lifestyle. In particular we like to help people wade through the fact and fiction that goes along with eating a nutritious diet. There is a lot of misinformation floating around in the ether of western civilization and we like to think that it helps to hear the truth about what we are putting in our bodies. With that in mind, we decided to write about high fructose corn syrup (HFSC) for this week’s post.
If you pay attention to the news at all, you have probably heard about how evil HFSC is. It is making us fat, diabetic, and hopelessly addicted to soda. No matter where you look, from articles written by doctors, to the Huffington Post, to one of my personal favourite websites HowStuffWorks.com the message is clear: “High fructose corn syrup will kill you.” That is the apparent consensus and it is fully the message of the article that I expected to write. I even thought I might throw in some jabs at the Corn Refiners Association for ridiculous brainwashy ads like this one. However, when I hit up the scientific literature, what I actually read shocked me.
The actual science on HFCS is a lot less doom and gloom than you would expect. First off, HFCS is a processed form of corn syrup where some of the glucose is turned into another sugar called fructose. Average, run-of-the-mill table sugar (sucrose) contains both glucose and fructose at about a 50/50 ratio. HFCS has slightly more fructose. Since fructose is sweeter than glucose, HFCS is friggin’ delicious. It makes anything you put it into crazily sweet. Pretty much to the point where you really don’t want to stop eating it.
Therein lies the problem with HFCS. Its tastiness, combined with the fact that food manufacturers understandably put it in everything (their goal, after all, is to sell a lot of Oreos), makes HFCS dangerous. The poison is in the dose, as the old saying goes; and we are happily dosing ourselves at off-the-charts levels. An American study recently found that a full one-third of the calories consumed by middle school students was in the form of added sugars.
However, just because gorging ourselves on something is bad for us doesn’t make it fair to point the finger in one direction if the thing we are pointing at isn’t especially harmful. When you look at research comparing HFCS to sucrose (table sugar) you end up reading the same thing over and over again: HFCS isn’t really any worse. If you don’t believe me (and I completely understand being surprised by this) read some of the studies I’ve linked to at the bottom of this post. Over and over again, the effects of HFCS and sucrose are the same. While scientists agree that pure fructose has terrible consequences for your body, there is actually little evidence to support the idea that the combination of fructose and glucose in HFCS is any worse than classic sugar.
I did manage to find one study about how HFCS led to greater weight gain over the long-term in mice, but researchers only compared mice eating HFCS to controls who weren’t getting any extra sugar. When you stack the deck against something like that, you are not conducting good science. Admittedly the same study also found differences in short-term weight gain with HFCS causing more flub than sucrose, but I haven’t found any other research to support that.
The lesson here is not to go out and inhale a gallon of orange soda, it is actually pretty much the opposite. Obviously there is a problem with the way companies make and sell food. They put sugar in things that have no business having sugar. Read the ingredients list on a box of crackers next time you’re at the grocery store if you have any doubts. However, the problem is not with the substance itself. It is with the people who are making and marketing the food and, ultimately, with the people who are consuming it. Clearly we can’t rely on big companies to only provide us with healthy foods, so we need to take some responsibility for our own actions.
Read labels and make smart choices. Maybe somewhere down the line enough people will get upset about the amount of sugar in food that we can pass a law limiting it, but until then companies will continue to sell sugar loaded snacks for as long as we keep buying them. HFCS is really cheap to produce and it makes you drink more juice. If I wanted to sell you a lot of lemonade, I would keep making the kind you like the most. Capitalism isn’t rocket science.
The other lesson here is not to believe everything you hear. Just because some doctor on the internet tells you something is good or bad, doesn’t mean anything. When it comes down to it, you are trusting strangers to tell you how the world works. Read different sources, make use of Google Scholar and read some published science, make up your own mind. Sometimes what seems like an issue of nutrition is really one of psychology.
References by findings:
No difference between HFCS and sucrose:
Maybe a difference:
Pure Fructose is bad: