Added sugar is hidden in the majority of processed foods, from flavored yogurt to condiments like BBQ sauce. While most people agree that eating too much sugar can be detrimental to your health, there are some debates and circulating myths about which types of sweeteners are considered “the worst” for you.
Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are commonly added sweeteners in processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. We’ll compare the two and set the record straight about them and other added sweeteners in this article!
There are several types of sugars, all of them with different chemical structures. An easy way to spot sugars is the ending -ose.
Some of the most common types of sugar we eat include:
Glucose (found naturally in some foods like honey and some fruits; also the type of sugar in your blood)
Fructose (also called fruit sugar, certain fruits are very high in fructose like apples)
Lactose (natural sugar found in milk)
Sucrose (made of glucose + fructose molecules)
What is corn syrup?
Corn syrup (like the kind you can find in the grocery store) is a thick, viscous liquid made by breaking down corn starch with an enzyme. The result is a sweet syrup made of glucose, a type of sugar. (Glucose is the same type of sugar found in your bloodstream, which is why it’s also called ‘blood sugar’.)
There are two types of corn syrup you can choose from: light corn syrup and dark corn syrup. Light corn syrup has a more mild flavor and is colorless, while dark corn syrup has a richer flavor and darker color thanks to the addition of molasses.
What is high-fructose corn syrup?
While regular corn syrup is 100% glucose, high-fructose corn syrup is made by chemically changing some of the glucose (sugar) molecules into fructose. Fructose is naturally found in fruits, which is why it’s called ‘fruit sugar’ – but obviously it can be found in foods that aren’t fruit as well!
Fructose is sweeter than glucose (and sucrose, or ‘table sugar’), which makes high-fructose corn syrup sweeter than corn syrup when used in similar amounts.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, high-fructose corn syrup contains either 42% or 55% fructose, while the rest of the contents are glucose and water.
Uses for corn syrup vs high-fructose corn syrup
While corn syrup can be used in processed foods (it’s used as a sweetener, thickener, and a method of adding moisture), you can also buy corn syrup to use for home baking uses.
Corn syrup helps yield a smooth texture in sweets like pies, jams/jellies, candy, and homemade ice cream. Why use corn syrup instead of table sugar, though?
The formation of large sugar crystals can take away from the smooth texture of these types of foods and can make them “grainy”, which is why smooth corn syrup is preferred when making these types of confections.
High-fructose corn syrup
You’ve probably noticed that your local grocery stores don’t carry high-fructose corn syrup like they do regular corn syrup. That’s because high-fructose corn syrup is generally used by food manufacturers and isn’t commonly used for at-home use. (You can find high-fructose corn syrup from some online retailers, but it’s just not as readily available as regular corn syrup!)
High-fructose corn syrup is preferred by food manufacturers because it’s sweeter than sugar and corn syrup and is less expensive to use than “real sugar” (cane sugar/sucrose). That’s why you’ll find high-fructose corn syrup in things like sweetened beverages, flavored yogurts, sweetened cereals, and many more sweetened processed foods.
Like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup can promote a smooth texture and help retain moisture in processed foods, which is another reason it’s popular among food manufacturers.
Corn syrup vs high-fructose corn syrup: is one better?
Corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are both considered added sweeteners and provide the same amount of calories (four calories per gram). Neither is considered “better” or “worse” than the other – one just tastes sweeter than the other.
The main thing it comes down to when choosing to use corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup is the cost. Food manufacturers can use less high-fructose corn syrup than regular corn syrup to achieve the same desired intensity of sweetness in their products, which is why it’s prevalent in sweetened processed foods.
Are corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup worse than sugar?
There is a lot of debate about whether corn syrup (especially high-fructose corn syrup) is worse for your health than regular sugar.
Some studies link high-fructose corn syrup with adverse health outcomes (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) However, a diet high in any type of added sugar can be detrimental to your health, and high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup just happen to be the more commonly used added sweeteners in processed foods.
The bottom line is that it’s difficult to ascertain if high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup are really worse for you than eating sucrose (“real” sugar), and all of these types of added sugars should be limited.
We think that Harvard University’s nutrition expert Frank Hu summarizes the topic perfectly: “High-fructose corn syrup isn’t necessarily worse for us than table sugar, but there is just too much of it in our food supply.”
What about more natural sugars?
“Natural” sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, and coconut sugar can be made out to be better for you than regular sugar and corn syrups. While it’s true that these sweeteners are far less processed than corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup, they are still considered added sugars and can cause similar health issues (blood sugar problems, dental caries, etc.) if consumed in high amounts.
The bottom line: try to limit your added sugar consumption (regardless of the kind of sugar) to fewer than 24 grams per day (6 teaspoons) per day for women and fewer than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men, according to the American Heart Association.
A quick side note on keto sweeteners: these types of sweeteners don’t contain real sugar molecules, so they aren’t included in these counts.
Corn syrup and other added sweeteners aren’t healthy to consume in high amounts, regardless of the type of added sweetener.
Both regular and high-fructose corn syrup are essentially 100% sugar – the only difference is the type of sugar (glucose vs. fructose & glucose).
Corn syrup is purely made of glucose, whereas high-fructose corn syrup changes some of those glucose molecules into fructose, making it a blend of glucose and fructose.