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Corn Syrup vs. High Fructose Corn Syrup

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Melanie asked me in person:

“What’s the difference between corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup?”

Before I answer this, let’s talk a little bit about sugars. There are three major types of sugar: sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Sucrose is table sugar. It’s a disaccharide, meaning that there are two sugar molecules joined together in a single molecule. Those two sugar molecules that make up sucrose are monosaccharides, and they are glucose and fructose.

Corn syrup is, as the name implies, made from corn. This makes it cheaper to produce than sugar, because the US government spends a lot of money to make corn growth a relatively inexpensive thing to do. 

Fructose is sweeter than glucose.

Regular corn syrup, the kind you buy for candy making, is primarily glucose suspended in water. You use it in your cooking because you want to keep crystals from forming in your candy or you need something chewy instead or hard or similar.

When manufacturers use corn syrup, they sometimes need it for the same reasons home cooks need it, but more often they use it to save money. And if substituting a less expensive ingredient for an expensive ingredient is one good way to save money, another good way is to use less of the ingredient instead of more. So they treat the corn syrup (with enzymes, apparently) in order to have more fructose than glucose. Because the fructose is sweeter than glucose, they don’t need to use as much of it in order to sweeten food.

There is a lot of controversy going on currently about high fructose corn syrup, about how bad it is for you, or about how it’s fine in moderation like sugar. Both of these things can be true at the same time.

Current theory on obesity trends starts with an evolutionary concept: we, as a species, adapted to our environment by eating certain foods, by having to work a certain amount to get those foods, and to occasionally get a bonus in high-energy foods that come irregularly. Fats and sugars were infrequent treats that we tried to store away. Vegetables and fruits were relatively easy to get, and animals were not too bad after some work, if we were lucky.

That all changed somewhat when we started farming, but instead of spending energy on hunting or gathering, a similar amount of energy went into raising the crops or animals. For a while, this just evened out the food supply and made it more predictable, which was great. But the energy or, eventually, monetary costs of raising these foods were fairly similar to the energy costs associated with hunting and gathering, so the proportions of foods of different types were still about the same (light on meat, heavy on vegetables, sugar and fat in low supply).

The prevalence of inexpensive corn has changed that landscape significantly, many argue. After all, if sugar, which is pretty expensive to create, can be made both sweeter and cheaper, then it will be put into many more foods than it would if we didn’t have the inexpensive supply. That, more than any inherently dangerous property of high fructose corn syrup, is the problem: it is insidious, and it is omnipresent.

If high fructose corn syrup costs, for example, 1/2 of what sugar costs for the same amount of sweetening, and it’s a flavor that we, evolutionarily, have come to associate with “eat as much of this as you can because you’re not going to get any food for a week or two,” then we are going to be putting twice as much of it into our foods, which will result in that much weight gain.

So, yes, if you eat high fructose corn syrup in moderation, it probably will be fine. But it’s everywhere and in so many processed foods that the way to avoid it is to avoid the foods that use it. If you are on a budget, as many of us are, then buying foods that aren’t sweetened by high fructose corn syrup will have a better chance of reflecting their real costs, which will encourage you to eat in a way that matches how we’ve evolved to eat.

Of course, it’s not that simple, because not only is the corn subsidy reach into other aspects of food (especially meat), but it’s not the only subsidized food. But, if you want to try to control your weight and become healthier, avoiding commodity foods is a really good way to start. Pay for things what they really cost, and things will start to line up properly. 



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  • TwirlyGirly | 12/06/2021

    This is a very important topic and one about which many are misinformed.

    It's vitally important for our health for each of us to learn about the different types of sugars and how our bodies process each type.

    Robert Lustig (quoted and paraphrased by an earlier commenter) made statements on fructose metabolism and weight gain that have been disputed in a systematic review of clinical research on obesity and metabolic syndrome.

    For further information, see:

    Khan, T. A; Sievenpiper, J. L (2016). "Controversies about sugars: Results from systematic reviews and meta-analyses on obesity, cardiometabolic disease and diabetes". European Journal of Nutrition. 55 (Suppl 2): 25–43. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1345-3. PMC 5174149. PMID 27900447

  • cljenkins | 10/04/2012

    Latest information on Fructose is very bad. Search for the scientist Robert Lustig. Only the liver can digest fructose, glucose is digested by the entire body. This puts stress on the liver, plus the by-products of digesting fructose damages the liver. Lustig's research shows people who eat food containing lots of fructose do the same damage to their livers as people who abuse alcohol.

    Even worse, much of the fructose is converted to fat by the liver. It is now believed that this fat is the fat that causes arterial and cardiac damage, far more than the fat that comes from eating meat (like 10 times a much).

    Even worser (sic), people who overeat with fructose get resistant to insulin (causes all sugars to be converted to fat) and leptin (leptin tells you when you are full), so they put on weight and continue to eat. Because of the insulin resistance they put on more fat than people who eat the same calories in other foods: As they get more resistant the body produces more insulin which packs even more of their food into fat, leaving them malnourished. And as they get leptin resistant they cannot tell they are full and eat more, which accelerates the cycle of eating more, getting resistant, leading to more eating, getting more resistant...

    Being malnourished they have less energy and move less, further ruining their health.

    Even worsering (sic), fructose digestion releases dopamine, which is a hormone that causes the feeling of pleasure/happiness. This is the same hormone released by many drugs like heroin and oxycontin. Eating fructose is literally addicting, further accelerating the cycle of weight gain and health decline.

    Even worstest (sic!!!!!!), high levels of dopamine causes the dopamine receptors in your brain to burn out. This means you become resistant to dopamine just like insulin and leptin. Being resistant to dopamine means you cannot feel pleasure or happiness unless you release even more dopamine (which burns out more receptors). This is another cycle that just gets worse and worse. People who are resistant to dopamine become depressed. Depression makes their eating habits worse as they no longer care about themselves or their health. Another cycle causing more fructose intake.

    I've heard the phrase "eating themselves to death" for years, but the latest research shows this is more true than anyone ever imagined.

  • rahlquist | 11/08/2010

    One other thing to consider is the Expense of sucrose is partly artificial. I learned this a few years back. Not only is corn cheap to grow, there are tariffs the US gov has put on Sucrose to make it more expensive to import (and I believe a limit on the amount).

    To quote Wikipedia "Sucrose has been partially replaced in American industrial food production by other sweeteners such as fructose syrups or combinations of functional ingredients and high-intensity sweeteners. This shift is attributable to governmental subsidies of U.S. sugar and an import tariff on foreign sugar, raising the price of sucrose to levels above those of the rest of the world.[25] Because of the artificially elevated price of sucrose, HFCS is cost efficient for many sweetener applications."

    Also see http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=92869

    So once again big business is in control. You will eat what they say or go to bed hungry. Capitalism at its worst.

  • mjaggers | 11/06/2010

    This is a really important distinction for people to understand. What's your take on the campaign to start calling high fructose corn syrup "corn sugar?" it seems as if that would confuse shoppers even more than we already are. Your point about paying what things cost is a good one, but I think people truly don't know, or are so constrained by their bank accounts that it just doesn't matter. I think a focus on teaching people to buy Ingredients and how to cook simple meals (as you do) is part of the overall solution.

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