Q: What’s the difference between sugar (white granulated sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup? Should I limit one more than the other for health reasons?
A: High-fructose corn syrup is a corn-based sweetener. It’s about an equal blend of glucose and fructose and can be bought only by food manufacturers. Its use increased greatly around 1975 because of its low cost, and in the ensuing years it has replaced sucrose as the primary sweetener in processed foods.
Sucrose also contains equal parts glucose and fructose and is used by manufacturers in processed foods. People also use table sugar, a form of sucrose, to sweeten their foods and beverages and for baking. For the most part it comes from sugar beets and sugar cane. Fruit contains naturally occurring sucrose.
Recently concerns have been raised about potential health consequences of high-fructose corn syrup. But there’s insufficient science to vilify it. “Human studies, though short-term and small, consistently show no different impact on measures of health compared with other sugars. Though it’d be nice to have more research, we can confidently say people’s health will benefit most from limiting all sources of calorie-containing sweeteners,” says Cindy Fitch, a nutrition professor at West Virginia University and co-author of an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on the topic.
High-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and other sweetening ingredients such as brown sugar, molasses, fruit nectar, cane juice, honey and agave nectar are added to processed foods. As a group they’re called “added sugars.” Those concerns about high-fructose corn syrup — unhealthy weight, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease — relate to any kind of added sugars.
Now there’s the rub. Nutrition labels give the “sugars” count per serving. The Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “sugars” is all sugars naturally occurring in foods, such as those from fruit (sucrose) or milk (lactose), plus all “added sugars.” Where you can detect the sources of sugars in foods is on the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity by weight. Read the list. Count up the sources of sugars and see where on the list they appear.
Overall, Americans consume too much added sugars from all sources. Estimates reveal added sugars represent 16 percent of calories (that’s an average of 300 to 400 calories) or 21 teaspoons of added sugars per day. These calories offer no nutritional value. According to the U.S. government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines, roughly 45 percent of added sugars come from regularly sweetened soda and energy, sports and fruit drinks, 15 percent from grain-based desserts (that’s cookies, cake, doughnuts, pastries, etc.) and 15 percent from a mix of other foods.
So rather than sleuthing out foods sweetened with sucrose instead of high-fructose corn syrup, take the healthier tack recommended in the Dietary Guidelines: Cut down on added sugars.
Try these ideas:
1. Avoid sugary drinks.
2. Limit sugary desserts and snack foods.
3. Read ingredient lists to detect and limit hidden sources of added sugars.
Warshaw, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by American Diabetes Association and the blog EatHealthyLiveWell found on her Web site, www.hopewarshaw.com.
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