Is high fructose corn syrup worse for you than table sugar? Answer: Unclear

As ‘A Sticky Question‘ was my first blog post here on ScienceBlog, I emailed the post to family and friends and asked for their honest assessments. I think the biggest thing people were looking for (especially from my non science-y contacts) was a more concise summary of my findings. While as a chemist I found it really informative to learn about the structure and makeup of different sugars and sweeteners, those without science backgrounds seemed to get a little bogged down in the background information.

To evaluate the different claims about the relative dangers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs table sugar, I went to the HFCS Wikipedia article. Now, I know very well that Wikipedia is really not the best source for scientific information. The Wikipedia section on the health effects of HFCS is ‘under dispute’ so rather than reading the Wikipedia article, I went to the original scientific research articles the Wikipedia article cited. It is the various interpretations of these original research articles that has led to such a vigorous debate about HFCS. There were four main articles that seemed to be at the center of the debate, so I analyzed those articles myself.

Article 1: ‘Consumption of HFCS in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.’

As I read this article, the authors mainly noted that we are getting fatter, and we are eating more HFCS, so there could be a relationship. Notice the ‘may’ in their article title. IMHO, the authors of this article didn’t address the important question if HFCS is causing us to get fatter – it could be just that we’re eating more calories and that’s why we’re getting fatter.

Article 2: ‘Consuming Fructose-sweetened Beverages Increases Body Adiposity in Mice

I was frustrated by this article because they were comparing mice consuming 100% fructose to mice consuming sucrose (table sugar) and noted that the fructose mice got fatter than the sucrose mice. However, HFCS is NOT 100% fructose – it’s a varying mixture of fructose and glucose (from 40:60 to 60:40 fructose:glucose, depending on the type of HFCS). Since they didn’t compare HFCS to table sugar, I think it’s a stretch to use this article to point a finger at HFCS.

Article 3: ‘Twenty-four-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles following consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals

At first I was excited about this article, because it seemed to do what I was looking for: directly compare HFCS to table sugar. And they used people rather than mice, so it seemed even better. In general, the researchers didn’t see much of a difference between those fed HFCS and those fed sugar. However, it was only a 24 hour study, so any long term effects weren’t examined.

Article 4: ‘Fructose-induced leptin resistance exacerbates weight gain in response to subsequent high-fat feeding

Again, I had similar issues with this paper as I did previous papers – they didn’t compare mice fed HFCS to mice fed table sugar – they compared mice fed fructose to mice fed corn starch (a glucose polymer). I didn’t think this article contributed to the HFCS vs sugar argument.

So overall I was not compelled to believe that HFCS is better or worse for us than sugar. I think BOTH are bad in excess and we’re probably eating too much sugar. However, I don’t believe that anyone proved that HFCS isn’t bad for you – I just think the right research has yet to be done.

If you know of a research study that directly compares HFCS to sucrose, I would love to hear about it. Also, if you want more details about the chemistry of sugar and more information about the studies I cited above, see my previous blog post, A Sticky Question.

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