- Compared to corn syrup which is 100% glucose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is “high” in fructose.
- HFCS is a mixture of two monosaccharides. It is 55% fructose and 45% glucose.
- HFCS is equal to the sweetness of sucrose.
- HFCS use in the U.S. began in the late 1960s and peaked in the late 1990s.
- Although Americans have reduced consumption of added sugars since 1999, most Americans consume more added sugars than is recommended.
There are many different types of sugars and they can come from a variety of food sources. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a common type of added sugar that is used in packaged foods and beverages. Sugars are added to foods for a variety of reasons, one of which is to provide sweetness—HFCS is equal to the sweetness of sucrose. Scientifically speaking, HFCS is a type of carbohydrate, a disaccharide made of two monosaccharides: fructose and glucose.
How is HFCS made?
As its name implies, high fructose corn syrup is made from corn. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. is the world’s largest corn producer, with Iowa and Illinois growing the most.
Corn is a versatile crop. It can be dry milled to produce cereals, flours and grits or it can be wet milled to produce alcohols, ethanol, oils, starches and sugars. HFCS is made through wet milling. Starch is separated from the other parts of the corn and used to make a syrup, which is nearly 100% glucose. This syrup is then converted, refined and filtered into liquid mixtures of either 42% or 55% fructose, with glucose making up the majority of the remaining sugars.
Is HFCS a misnomer?
The name “high fructose corn syrup” can be somewhat misleading. The term likely resulted from a comparison to corn syrup, which is 100% glucose. While the most common type of HFCS is higher in fructose than corn syrup and sucrose, another common sweetener, agave syrup, is higher in fructose than HFCS. The most common form of HFCS is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Agave syrup is about 82% fructose and 18% glucose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is a 50:50 mixture of glucose and fructose.
Is HFCS a natural or added sugar?
HFCS is considered an added sugar because we only consume it from packaged foods and beverages to which it has been added during manufacturing. Current dietary guidance recommends limiting the consumption of added sugars to less than 10% of total calories—in other words, less than 50 grams of added sugars if you consume 2,000 calories per day. About six in ten American adults eat more added sugars than is recommended.
How is HFCS digested?
Like other caloric sugars, HFCS provides about four calories per gram. And the way we digest HFCS is similar to other sugars as well. When we consume HFCS, it is broken down into glucose and fructose. Glucose ultimately gets taken up by our cells with the help of insulin, while fructose is handled in the liver and does not need insulin to be absorbed. A 2015 randomized cross-over trial found no differences in blood glucose response or other cardiometabolic outcomes in people who consumed beverages sweetened with HFCS, honey and sucrose daily for two weeks.
Some foods and beverages provide more nutrients than others, which can affect how we metabolize sugars, including HFCS. One such nutrient is fiber. We digest fiber-containing foods and beverages more slowly and the rate of glucose absorption is also slowed. Thus, foods, beverages and meals that contain fiber generally do not impact our blood sugar as much as those without fiber.
Why is HFCS added to foods and beverages?
HFCS is not sold directly to consumers in grocery stores. Rather, it is only used commercially in items like baked goods, beverages, candies, canned and packaged foods, condiments, jams, yogurts and other sweetened foods. HFCS use in the U.S. began in the late 1960s, peaked in 1999 and has declined during this century as Americans have reduced added sugars consumption . The most recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that per capita, similar amounts of HFCS were available for consumption in 2016-17 as was available in 1984–85.
Most people are aware that HFCS and other sugars are added to foods and beverages to provide sweetness (sucrose and HFCS are equal in sweetness), but many may not know that sugars are also used for other reasons. HFCS is a common ingredient in baked goods to provide surface browning, moisture, structure and texture; in beverages for body and flavor; in breads, jams and jellies to act as a preservative; and in other items to stabilize emulsions and add flavor. While added sugars such as HFCS give many of our favorite foods the taste and mouthfeel we have come to expect, it is important to keep our consumption of added sugars low.
To learn more about carbohydrates and sugars, watch this video.