The use of artificial sweeteners and added sugars like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as opposed to sugar in processed food has become a topic of debate among health-conscious consumers. High fructose corn syrup contains a combination of glucose and fructose, and manufacturers find it cheaper to use than sucrose (sugar). There have been numerous studies that show why HFCS is harmful and how it affects health, but whether it is categorically worse than sugar is still up for debate.

Sugar and high fructose corn syrup have the same calorific value but HFCS has a higher glycemic index. HFCS also has higher fructose content than sugar, and the body processes fructose differently than other sugars.[1]

This comparison examines the ongoing debate, scientific literature from published research studies concerning high fructose corn syrup, as well as differences in composition and production of the two sweeteners.

Comparison chart

High Fructose Corn Syrup versus Sugar comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartHigh Fructose Corn SyrupSugar
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Source Corn Sugarcane, beets
Types of included sugars Glucose, Fructose Sucrose (disaccharide consisting of 50% fructose & 50% glucose bound together)
Glycemic index 87 60
Sugars 26 g 99.91g (per 100g)
Fat 0 g 0 g
Protein 0 g None
Introduction High-fructose corn syrup comprises any of a group of corn syrups that has undergone enzymatic processing to convert some of its glucose into fructose to produce a desired sweetness. Table sugar or sucrose is the organic compound seen most commonly as white, odorless, crystalline powder with a sweet taste.
Carbohydrates 76 g 99.98g (per 100g)
Dietary fiber 0 g 0 g
Production Corn milled, corn starch processed to corn syrup, enzymes added to alter chemical makeup, mixed with HFCS 90 to create HFCS 55 Sugarcane: milled, juice extracted, water evaporated, sugar crystals separated in centrifuge, crystals refined Sugar beets: beets soaked in hot water, sugars isolated through filtration and purification, water evaporated, crystals separated.
Uses Soft drinks, processed foods, baked goods, cereals Baked goods, natural cereals, table sweetener
Water 24 g 0.03g (per 100g)
Calories (1 tsp) 16 calories 99.98g (per 100g)
Products Regular soft drinks (in the U.S.), such as Coke, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew Processed baked goods such as pre-packaged cakes, cookies Sweet cereals such as Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs Regular soft drinks in Mexico and other countries Fresh bakery goods Organic cereals such as Kashi and Annie's
Health Factor Too much consumption leads to obesity and diseases such as diabetes. Most commonly found in nutrient-poor products. Too much consumption leads to obesity and diseases such as diabetes. Can also lead to tooth decay.

How did High Fructose Corn Syrup become Necessary?

High fructose corn syrup was first introduced in the United States in 1957, but was not considered marketable at the time. In the1970s, as the price of imported sugar in the USA increased on account of sugar quotas and sugar tariffs, food manufacturers looked for a cheaper, affordable sweetener that could be manufactured locally. By then, Dr. Takasaki from the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology of Ministry of International Trade and Industry of Japan had industrialized the process of HFCS manufacturing.

Because of government subsidies to corn growers in the US, corn prices remained low, making HFCS production very economical, and much cheaper compared to importing sugar. Beginning in 1975, manufacturers began using HFCS in soft drinks and processed foods.

The Controversy About High Fructose Corn Syrup

Using high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener has become a topic of controversy in recent years. HFCS has been accused of contributing to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Critics claim HFCS is more harmful than sugar.

In 2010, Princeton University conducted research into the effects of HFCS. The researchers gave rats access to either unlimited amounts of sugar water or HFCS. The rats accessing HFCS gained more weight, especially around the abdomen, even when their caloric intake was the same as the other rats'. The HFCS rats also exhibited higher levels of triglycerides and demonstrated characteristics of obesity, which carry a host of other health risks. However, similar results have not been reproduced in humans.

Critics have also questioned the link between high fructose corn syrup and overeating. They propose that HFCS actually decreases appetite satiation, leading to overeating. But this hypothesis has not been supported by scientific research either.

The HCFS Debate

HFCS critics claim that the Princeton study supports a link between the increased usage of HFCS and the rising obesity epidemic. The Corn Refiners Association denies this link. They state that the obesity epidemic rises from over-consumption of overall calories and has nothing to do with the use of HFCS in food; they also claim that HFCS is the same as table sugar.

In their original forms, HFCS and sugar are different. However, studies show that the body breaks them down the same way, although people who drink HFCS beverages have higher levels of fructose in their blood, which is metabolized differently than other sugars.

Brian Dunning from inFact throws light on the HCFS vs Sugar debate:

So Which One is Better?

While there are no conclusive studies on why high fructose corn syrup is specifically worse than sugar, studies do show that consumption of too much HFCS leads to obesity and diseases like diabetes, as does the consumption of too much sugar. Foods containing HFCS – soda pop, processed snack foods and sugary cereals – are not healthful choices for a diet. Healthful eating generally requires avoiding the types of food that use high fructose corn syrup. Consuming too much sugar also leads to obesity and diabetes, and promotes tooth decay. Healthful eating requires limited sugar intake as well.

In other words, both sugar and high fructose corn syrup are harmful for the body, especially when the intake is high. These sweeteners accelerate aging, and rapidly degenerate brain cells. When consuming processed products with HFCS, the ratio of fructose to glucose is altered, changing the break-down metabolism and causing more sugar cravings. Consuming sugar in the raw or as an ingredient has a balanced fructose to glucose ratio (50-50), which makes the breakdown metabolism more predictable.

Composition of HFCS and Sugar

High fructose corn syrup is also known as isoglucose, glucose-fructose syrup and high-fructose maize syrup. In Canada, they just call it glucose or fructose. Its scientific name is fructose-glucose liquid sweetener.

The formula for using HFCS in soft drinks is HFCS 55, i.e. 55% fructose and 42% glucose. The formula HFCS in processed foods, baked goods, cereals and beverages is HFCS 42, because of the 42% fructose and 53% glucose. HFCS 90 is a mixture of 90% fructose and 10% glucose, and is used in producing HFCS 55.

The scientific name for sugar or table sugar is sucrose. Sugar is a mixture of 50% fructose and 50% glucose.

Production Process

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Workers start by milling corn, which results in corn starch. The corn starch is then processed to produce corn syrup, mostly glucose syrup. With the addition of enzymes, some of the glucose becomes fructose in an isomeric process. The ratio at this point is 42 percent fructose, or HFCS 42, commonly used in processed foods, baked goods, cereals and beverages.

To make HFCS 55, refiners pass HFCS 42 through an ion-exchange column. This column retains fructose at a 90-percent grade, making HFCS 90. The refiners mix this with the HFCS 42 syrup to create the mix of 55 percent fructose to 42 percent glucose, HFCS 55. This mixture is the primary soft drink sweetener.

Sugar Production from Sugarcane

Sugarcane requires a tropical or subtropical climate and is grown in South America, the South Pacific, South Asia and the southern United States.

After harvesting by hand or machine, sugarcane stalks are transported to a processing plant, where sugar is extracted through milling or diffusion. They add lime and heat the sugar juice to kill enzymes, resulting in a thin syrup which is then evaporated in vacuum chambers to condense the sugars. The concentrated syrup is then seeded with crystals to enable crystallization. The crystals are separated from the fluid and dried them out. A by-product of this process is molasses.

Sugarcane displayed for sale at College Street Market, Kolkata.
Sugarcane displayed for sale at College Street Market, Kolkata.

At this point the sugar crystals have a sticky brown coating. This product is sold as brown sugar, a baking staple. When the sticky brown coating is removed, the result is unrefined cane sugar, often called Turbinado or Demerara sugar.

Refining sugar involves first immersing the crystals in a concentrated syrup to remove the brown coating. Next, the crystals are dissolved in water. The syrup goes through precipitation, filtering out impurities and returning sugar to solid form. Workers remove color by way of chemical processes; either activated carbon or ion-exchange resin. The syrup is again concentrated by boiling, cooling and seeding with crystals. The leftover liquid is removed via centrifuge, and the end result is white table sugar.

Sugar Production from Sugar Beets

Sugar beet harvest with large piles of sugar beets in the background.
Sugar beet harvest with large piles of sugar beets in the background.

Making sugar from sugar beets is a cheaper and easier process than from sugarcane. Beets can remain underground for an extended time without rotting. Beets are harvested and transport to the processing plant. They are then sliced and soaked in hot water. The sugars are isolated through filtration and purification with milk of lime. Rapid boiling in a vacuum evaporates the water. The syrup is seeded with crystals after it has cooled. The resultant sugar crystals get separated from the liquid in a centrifuge. The end result is white table sugar with no further refinement necessary.

How Sugar Traveled the World

The use of sugarcane originates in India. Around 500 B.C., inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent created sugar crystals. They made sugar syrup with a process remarkably similar to present-day production: heating sugar and then cooling the syrup to make sugar crystals. Since sugar crystals are easier to transport and last longer than sugar cane, sugar became a trading commodity.

The method for crystallizing sugar traveled with the traders. Indian sailors introduced the procedures along their trade route. Likewise, traveling Buddhist monks brought the knowledge to China. However, it wasn't until 7th century A.D. that China planted sugarcane.

While Alexander the Great's troops did bring sugarcane back to Europe, sugar remained rare there. More than a millennium later Crusaders brought back sugar from the Holy Land. In the 12th century, Venetians created sugarcane plantations and began exporting sugar.

Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the New World in the 15th century after a sojourn with Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, governor of the Canary Islands. However, sugar remained a luxury in Europe until the 18th century. Etienne de Bore created the first granulated sugar in 1795 in Louisiana.

Cultivating sugarcane requires a very specific climate. Therefore by the 19th century, European production of sugar centered on the sugar beet, which is easier to cultivate. Most of the modern production of sugar still stems from the sugar beet.


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