Nutrition fact check: high-fructose corn syrup

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This is one in an occasional series on nutrition topics.

Buzzword: High-fructose corn syrup

The Mystery: Is high-fructose corn syrup responsible for the obesity epidemic, or isn't it? Is it worse for us to eat than sugar? Should we avoid it in the grocery store or is it really just the same as sugar?

The Expert: Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Channing Lab and Brigham and Women's Hospital; and director of the Boston Obesity Nutrition Research Center, Epidemiology and Genetics Core.

Q: What is high-fructose corn syrup?

A: High-fructose corn syrup is made of corn. The starch is converted into sugar through a process called hydrolysis. The finished product typically consists of about 55 percent fructose, 40 percent glucose and other minor sugars and other ingredients.

Q:How is that different from table sugar?

A: Table sugar, called sucrose, is made from sugar cane [or beets] and is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose.

Q: What makes high-fructose corn syrup different? Why is it used in place of sugar?

A: It's cheap, it's much cheaper than table sugar. That's one of the main reasons it has been used ubiquitously in the U.S. food supply. Metabolically they are not substantially different.

Q: Does that mean it's fine to eat?

A: We should worry about sugar in general. On a gram-for-gram basis, high-fructose corn syrup may not be worse than table sugar but there is just too much in our food supply, especially in [the form of] soft drinks. Because it's cheap, consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has gone up so much in recent decades and has become one of the main sources of calories in our diet.

The Takeaway: High-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and caloric sweeteners by any other name deliver a lot of empty (non-nutritive) calories. For better health, avoid products with added sugar, whether it comes from corn, sugar cane or beets.

health

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.


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