Sugar occurs naturally in many foods and is added to many more. Whether it is used as a flavoring agent, as a preservative, or as both, it’s easy to get too much of this “sweet” thing.
Sugar is the common umbrella term for sweeteners such as sucrose, lactose and maltose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is the form most commonly found in foods, and is a derivative of the sugar found naturally in sugar beets or in sugar cane. Fructose is derived from fruits, lactose comes from milk, and maltose from grains. So, one might logically expect a sweetener derived from corn to be predominantly maltose. However, that’s not always the case. High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, has been used as both a flavoring agent and as a preservative for many years in the United States due to its relatively low cost and abundant supply. HFCS is on par with sucrose or honey with respect to sweetness.
It is approximately 55% fructose and 45% glucose by concentration, compared to a roughly 50/50 mixture for sucrose. Debate about HFCS in the sphere of health and fitness usually centers on how the substance is utilized by the body and the question of how it (along with other simple sugars in general) might contribute to obesity and other health issues. Unlike the fructose that occurs naturally in fruit, the form found in HFCS is not bound to fiber, which means the body can process it faster. This can be great for a quick pick-me-up effect, but it also results in undesirable blood sugar peaks and valleys. The fructose derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, in comparison, must go through an additional metabolic step before it can be used by the body as fuel. Although research has shown that HFCS syrup is similar chemically to table sugar, it is not clear how the human body handles HFCS in comparison to table sugar.
A study conducted Princeton University, however, showed that rats gained significantly more weight when consuming HFCS than when they consumed table sugar, even when the caloric intake was kept the same.1 The study found that the rats that consumed HFCS gained 48% more weight than their sucrose supping cohorts. The HCFS group also showed what the researchers noted were significant amounts of added abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides. In humans, these signs are related to issues including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Some brands appear to be catching up with, or at least appealing to, health-conscious consumers by offering foods ranging from ketchup to pancake syrup to that do not contain HCFS. But HFCS is still widely used, and if its presence is a concern, be prepared to read the labels on food and beverage products, on everything from soup to nuts, and what can be a surprising number of items in between. Regardless of research into the nutritive values of HCFS compared to any other sugar, what has been demonstrated is that too much added sugar of any kind can contribute to not only “empty” calories and weight gain, but to a number of health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels.
These conditions increase one’s risk of developing heart disease. Odds are that small amounts of fruit each day are not going to cause severe or adverse effects. However, it’s probably a good idea to avoid combinations of a great deal of table sugar, soft drinks, and large quantities of fruit on a regular basis. Whole fruit is healthy. But, as with all good things, it should be consumed in moderation, as large quantities of frequently ingested food of any type that is absorbed slowly can contribute to poor digestion.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar from any source, and that most men get no more than 150 calories a day from added sugar. That’s about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men. This translates to a recommendation of no more than 100 calories per day from added sugar for women; and no more than 150 calories per day of added sugar for men. So, no matter the source, it’s best to limit one’s daily intake of simple sugars.
1. Miriam E. Bocarsly, Elyse S. Powell, Nicole M. Avena, Bartley G. Hoebel, High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Volume 97, Issue 1, November 2010, Pages 101-106.
2. Robert H. Lustig, Frank Sacks, Lyn M. Steffen and Judith Wylie-Rosett, Rachel K. Johnson, Lawrence J. Appel, Michael Brands, Barbara V. Howard, Michael Lefevre. Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009;120:1011-1020.