Honey has an aura of purity and naturalness. Fresh air, birdsong, forests and meadows.
High-fructose corn sweetener? Not so much.
So you might think that honey is better for you. But a study published this month compared the health effects of honey and the processed sweetener and found no significant differences.
“The effects were essentially the same,” said Susan K. Raatz, a research nutritionist at the USDA who conducted the study with two colleagues.
The belief that HFCS may be harmful - linked to obesity or diabetes - has helped sink consumption of HFCS over the last ten years.
Researchers at the USDA decided to put that belief to the test. The honey industry, likely hoping that that honey's suspected health benefits might be proven, helped fund the effort.
The researchers gave subjects daily doses of each of three sweeteners - honey, cane sugar and high-fructose corn sweetener - for two weeks at a time. They then compared measures of blood sugar, insulin, body weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in the 55 subjects.
The researchers found that the three sweeteners basically have the same impacts. Most measures were unchanged by the sweeteners. One measure of a key blood fat, a marker for heart disease, rose with all three.
“Honey is thought of as more natural whereas white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are processed from the cane or the beet or the corn,” said Raatz, whose paper appears in the Journal of Nutrition. “We wanted to find out if they were different. But chemically, they are very, very similar, and that’s what it seems to break down to.”
Introduced in the ‘70s, high-fructose corn sweetener quickly gained favor among soft drink and snack producers. Sales soared and by 2003, consumption of HFCS reached just about the same level as sugar.
Since then, though, sales have been sliding.
That's at least partly because of widespread concerns that fructose might be linked to obesity and diabetes. Many health authorities, however, say that evidence of any potential harm from HFCS, at least relative to other sweeteners, is scant at best.
“At this time, there's insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.
“We are not aware of any evidence...that there is a difference in safety,” the Food and Drug Administration’s website says.
Some studies do raise questions about how the body metabolizes fructose. But even if fructose, which is found in apples and pears, turns out to be particularly harmful, it wouldn't necessarily mean that HFCS is worse for you than honey or table sugar. All three contain fructose, and all three are composed of similar proportions of fructose and another simple sugar, glucose. (Honey and HFCS are composed mainly of fructose and glucose; cane sugar is sucrose, a compound of fructose and glucose.)
When it comes to consumer perceptions, the trouble for HFCS arises at least in part from its name - "high fructose" may suggest that it contains much more fructose than the other sweeteners, though it doesn't.
Honey, meanwhile, maintains a halo. It is not for nothing that the Kellogg Company renamed Sugar Smacks to Honey Smacks.
The marketers “made a big mistake when they called it ‘high-fructose corn syrup,’” said Raatz. "A sweetener is a sweetener, no matter the source."