The lowdown on high-fructose corn syrup

Last updated: March 2010

Read the label
High-fructose corn syrup shows up in products such as these, where you might not expect it

In November, Pepsi announced that it was dropping high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from its Gatorade drinks because "many athletes have a negative perception" of the sweetener. That perception seems to be spreading. A recent survey by the Corn Refiners Association, an industry group that promotes HFCS, found that 175 food products and companies touted the term "high fructose corn syrup-free" between February 2007 and October 2009.

But tossing high-fructose corn syrup off ingredient lists may well have more to do with marketing than science. A sweetener made from cornstarch processed with enzymes and acids, HFCS has roughly the same composition as cane sugar—about half glucose and half fructose—and the same number of calories. Concerns that it's directly responsible for rising obesity rates or somehow intrinsically more fat-inducing than sugar are largely unfounded, though researchers continue to study whether the body handles HFCS differently.

Say what?
Euphemisms for sugar abound on labels.

That said, added sugar in any form means unnecessary calories, and HFCS is pretty much everywhere: in soft drinks and baked goods, but also in unexpected places such as yogurts, salad dressings, and ketchup. It's slightly cheaper than sugar and, in addition to making foods sweeter, helps maintain color, texture, and flavor.

Unfortunately, food labels don't tell you how much HFCS (or any added sugar) is in a serving. The best you can do is read the list of ingredients, which are in order of predominance, with those used in the greatest amount first.

Nor is there a consensus on how much added sugar people should eat. The Institute of Medicine sets the "threshold" at 25 percent of daily calories, about 500 calories if you consume 2,000 a day. The American Heart Association advises women to get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar; men, 150.

The Corn Refiners' ad campaign cites a "recommended daily allowance" of added sugars, but there's no such thing. It would be fine to consume no added sugars. The group's president, Audrae Erickson, told us the term is used because consumers won't understand "threshold." We disagree.

What you can do. Calories from added sugars clearly pile on pounds. Curb consumption of added sugars by cutting back on processed foods and scouring labels for other forms of added sugar: brown sugar, corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup.

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