Chefs, restaurant owners, packaged-food companies and health advocates everywhere are purging high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from their food. According to the Wall Street Journal, one San Diego restaurant spent several months and more than $15,000 making sure all of their sodas, cocktails, ice cream and sauces were HFCS-free. They are replacing it with sugar. But is HFCS really less healthy than the alternatives?
It turns out that much of the hoopla surrounding HFCS may be based more hype than fact. For chefs, restaurateurs and packaged-food companies, removing HFCS is part of a larger effort to create foods that appear more wholesome. The key word here is “appear.” Most scientists agree that using sugar instead of HFCS provides no health benefit. Studies have consistently found that, at the molecular level, HFCS and common sugar are almost identical. The American Medical Association says that “insufficient evidence exists to specifically restrict the use of HFCS.”
One reason that people shy away from HFCS is because of the name – high fructose corn syrup. The name implies that it contains a high percentage of fructose, a type of sugar that is less healthy than glucose. In fact, HFCS is about 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose (the fructose level can vary between about 55 percent for use in soda and 42 percent for use in processed foods, cereals and baked goods).
Research at the University of California, Davis (as well as other places) has shown that a diet high in fructose can raise lipids and reduce insulin sensitivity. Consumption of glucose doesn’t result in these negative effects. Both HFCS and sugar contain about half fructose and half glucose, making them biochemically identical.
One substitute for sugar or HFCS that has been popular recently is agave nectar. It is touted by health advocates as “natural, “organic” and even “healthy.” But agave nectar can be almost 100% fructose, making it a poor choice over sugar or HFCS in most cases.
So, what does this mean for you? First, don’t panic if some foods you eat contain HFCS. If it’s just in a soda or two, or part of a cereal you eat occasionally, it’s probably not going to affect you one way or the other. If your diet is high in sugar (any type, including HFCS), then over the long run, you may be at higher risk for diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Instead, we recommend a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates, and low in fat and sugar (again, all types). Remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be healthy, just make healthy choices most of the time. You don’t have to eliminate HFCS entirely in order to be healthy, just keep your intake of HFCS or any refined sugar, to a minimum.
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