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Functional Ingredients: A Sugar by Any Other Name

HFCS – or call it corn sugar – is as sweet as sugar because it is sugar.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

The Corn Refiners Association last month filed a petition with the FDA for a name change of its key product, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The association is seeking favor for the "more descriptive" term "corn sugar." They want to help consumers "avoid confusion"—as if anything about HFCS wasn't confusing. Not that it's the fault of the makers of HFCS.

Actually, HFCS makers probably want to forget they ever named the stuff anything other than corn sugar. And why not? That's exactly what the stuff is. This puts the uproar of the past decade over HFCS in its proper perspective.

Sucrose — that disaccharide also known as table sugar — is 50 percent glucose, 50 percent fructose. It most commonly is made from beets or sugar cane. HFCS is, of course, made from corn — and it's also about 50-50 glucose and fructose. In fact, it has a slightly wider gap, running between 42 and 55 percent fructose, depending on the manufacturer.

So the "high fructose" corn syrup in that beverage you're drinking could actually have less fructose than the one using sugar instead. That adjective "high"? It came from comparing the product to pure glucose. Although hindsight is always 20-20, the more logical name would have been "low-glucose corn syrup." Then it would have been difficult to make the (erroneous) charge that HFCS is bad "because it has a lot of fructose."

Which brings up an irony worth noting: Many of the same factions screaming bloody murder about calling HFCS corn sugar have been joyously renaming table sugar on their products "cane sugar" or, more duplicitously, "evaporated cane juice." Some go so far as to proclaim, "No HFCS!" on their labeling.

In a 2006 article in this magazine, "The Devil and High Fructose Corn Syrup," I stated that nobody has found evidence that HFCS makes you fatter than overeating any sugar; 4 kcals per gram is 4 kcals per gram. That's still true. Nothing has changed except the entrenched position that HFCS somehow is responsible for the epidemic of obesity in this country.

The attacks on HFCS typically center on fructose and the metabolic disturbances in rats fed diets composed of up to 65 percent of calories from pure fructose. We're not talking about two-thirds of calories from all carbohydrates, including complex starches — no, this is two-thirds of calories from pure sugar. Forget about the difficulty in comparing couch potato rats to couch potato humans; any creature eating a refined, low-nutrient energy source as its main source of calories is not headed for a career with the Bolshoi.

One of the most cited indictments of fructose as an obesity culprit in humans came from an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004. This review makes the circumstantial case based on the parallel increase of HFCS use in foods and rising obesity, plus differences in how the body handles glucose compared to fructose. All that with no speculation about what the obesity rate would have been had we used another sugar during this time, which we would have.

According to a July 2010 article in Preventive Medicine, "The 10-year average daily per capita calories [based on] a U.S. Department of Agriculture food availability database...went from 2200 in 1970-1980 to 2700 in 2000-2008, an increase of 500 calories." During the years that coincide precisely with the emergence of the obesity epidemic, our average calorie intake from all sources rose 500 kcals per day. That's a pound of fat per week, 52 pounds of fat per year. And this does not take into account during the same time period we became more sedentary, not more active.

HFCS is a refined sugar and, like all refined sugars, should be held to a maximum of about 10 percent of daily calories in a healthy diet — a diet in which you do not overeat, a diet that is rich in nutrient-dense natural foods, a diet that gives you energy to exercise and be active.

Singling out HFCS only serves to add more confusion and misdirection to a field already rife with misinformation and outright self-serving chicanery. Those up in arms about the horrible state of nutrition in this country should be welcoming the change of name to the more logical and accurate "corn sugar." If the goal really is to lead people to eat better and more healthfully, the right thing to do is support less confusion.