Is HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) different than sucrose?
Since its invention, high-fructose corn syrup has been a very controversial sweetener. Today, many argue that HFCS is much worse than table sugar.
Like the most popular disaccharide, sucrose (table sugar), high-fructose corn syrup consists of the same two monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. The difference is that these two monosaccharides in HFCS are not bonded together, as they are in sucrose. This lack of one bond gives HFCS a liquid form instead of crystals of sucrose. The liquid form of this sugar is very beneficial to the food industry, as it is easier to transport and handle. It doesn’t have to go through a dissolving process before being added to products. It helps in browning in the baking process. It adds moisture to food and it never recrystallizes after baking. What’s more important, its composition can be adjusted by the content of two monosaccharides and used according to its different characteristics (such as sweetness or stability).
The very important aspect is that HFCS is produced from corn, which is subsidized in some countries—and, therefore, the price of HFCS is lower than the price of sugar produced from cane.
Apart from the physical or chemical characteristics, we are also interested in the difference between HFCS and sugar on human digestion and health.
When we eat sucrose, the first stage of digestion happens in our mouth. The disaccharide molecule is broken into two monosaccharides: glucose and fructose. In the case of HFCS, there is no bond between the two monosaccharides, so basically HFCS has the form of sucrose after the first stage of digestion takes place. From a chemical point of view, there is no difference whatsoever between these two sweeteners.
From a medical point of view, more and more experts agree that HFCS and sucrose are metabolically equivalent since HFCS is metabolized through the same pathways as sucrose. There are no significant blood glucose, insulin, leptin, or ghrelin response differences between the two sweeteners.
Secondly, the unique relationship between HFCS and obesity has never been found, which is shown in the two plots below.
Plot from “Challenging the fructose hypothesis: new perspectives on fructose consumption and metabolism”, (White 2013).
World Health Organization obesity rates (BMI ≥ 30kg/m2, age ≥ 30 y) versus high-fructose corn syrup in selected countries for 2005. From “Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain’t”, (White 2008).
It is important to remember that all of the above findings refer to HFCS55, where the amount of fructose is similar to the amount of glucose. Only this type of HFCS is chemically similar to sucrose and does not differ metabolically. Other types of HFCS, where the amount of fructose is much higher (most often used in beverages), may pose a risk when consumed in larger amounts, as high consumption of fructose may be associated with epidemics of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Finally, HFCS is produced from genetically modified corn, which is not permitted for consumption in the European Union.
Melanson, K.J. et al., 2008. High-fructose corn syrup, energy intake, and appetite regulation. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(6), pp.1738–1744.
Rippe, J.M. & Angelopoulos, T.J., 2013. Sucrose , High-Fructose Corn Syrup , and Fructose , Their Metabolism and Potential Health Effects : What Do We Really Know ? 1 , 2. , pp.236–245.
White, J.S., 2008. Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain’t. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(6), pp.1716–1721.
White, J.S., 2013. Challenging the fructose hypothesis: new perspectives on fructose consumption and metabolism. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(2), pp.246–56.