I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

April 18, 2010

Sugar is sugar … or not?

If you’ve followed any of the discussion about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) vs. sucrose, you’ve probably heard representatives of the soft drink industry and HFCS refiners repeatedly say that fructose is no different than sucrose and that they’re metabolized the same (which, according to more and more research, is debatable).  I’ll get to that a little further on.

How much sugar we’re consuming

Amber Waves article “Behind the Data: Estimating Consumption of Caloric Sweeteners.” (April 2003)

Amount of HFCS and refined sugar delivered to food and beverage manufacturers in 2001

Intake levels represent the difference between total deliveries of calorie sweeteners for food and beverage use and estimated losses
Graphics from http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/April03/Indicators/behinddata.htm

Make note of that 31.1 teaspoons per day figure for 2001.  (Daily intake in teaspoons = average annual intake in pounds / 365 days per year x 16 ounces per pound x 28.3495 grams per ounce / 4.2 grams per teaspoon.)

Think about the last item in that formula.  If the label on a box of cereal says 9 g of sugars, that means that a single serving contains 2 tsps of sugar.  A 12 oz. soda containing 39 g of sugars contains more than NINE teaspoons of sugar.  You get the idea.

According to Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005 (see references), for 2005 it was down to 30 teaspoons per day.

What does this tell us?

Several points, one, representatives of the Corn Refiners Association and beverage manufacturers are right when they say that whether it’s fructose or sucrose doesn’t really matter.  If you’re consuming almost 4 times the amount of added sugars you should be, you are going to have problems!

Two, sucrose contained in beverages begins to undergo hydrolysis once it’s bottled and separates into its component parts (that is, fructose and glucose).  So in many cases when you’re drinking a sugar-sweetened soda you’re not drinking sucrose in solution, but sucrose, fructose, and glucose.  If enough time goes by most of the sucrose turns into free fructose and glucose.

A number of studies have shown that fructose is metabolized differently than glucose, but other studies seem to indicate that’s not as much of a concern, except possibly in two cases: one, when the ratio of fructose to glucose consumption is high, or in cases of high consumption of calories.  I would say that we have a combination of those, a relatively high ratio of fructose to glucose consumption (look at the relative amounts of HFCS to refined sugars used by beverage manufacturers!) together with consuming too many calories from sugar.  (And remember, that’s just the average amount.  Some people are consuming even larger amounts of sugar.)

Background on high fructose syrups

I recently came across a very interesting article, coauthored by John S. White, who is, or at least has been, a consultant to the Corn Refiners Association.

“Manufacturing, composition, and applications of fructose.”  L. Mark Hanover and John S. White.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1993, v.58(suppl.), 724S-732S.

The article describes the manufacturing and refining process of HFCS (or, as the authors call it, HFS), the composition of various grades of HFCS (as well as crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup), functional properties and uses, and regulatory status.

What I found so fascinating about this particular article though, were these bits of information scattered throughout it.  According to the authors , HFS-42 (that is, HFCS that is 42% fructose) was the “first generation syrup of commerce.”  (p.726S)

They go on to note that :

Japanese and US manufacturers were producing HFS containing 55% fructose by the late 1970s.  HFS-55 was adopted by the carbonated-beverage industry and became the predominant sweetener in colas by late 1984. (p.726S)

On p. 727S, a table showing the typical composition of the various grades of fructose (ranging from 42% all the way up to 80% and 95%).

  • HFS-42 is 42% fructose, 53% dextrose (i.e. glucose), and 5% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-55 is 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-80 is 80% fructose, 18% glucose, and 2% oligosaccharides
  • HFS-95 is 95% fructose, 4% glucose, and 1% oligosaccharides

One of the minor differences between HFS-80 and HFS-95 is that they, unlike the other two, contain less sulfated ash and no sulfur dioxide.  (Okay, the HFS-42 and -55 contain only 2 parts per million.)

The crystalline fructose and crystalline fructose syrup are both 99.5% or greater fructose.

What is interesting is that the authors note, p. 731S, that HFS-55 was being used in colas by late 1984, but that in 1988 the FDA had “proposed to recognize the long history of safety for fructose and reaffirm the GRAS status of HFS as a direct human food ingredient.” (FDA, 1992, 21 CFR 182.1866)  GRAS = “Generally Recognized As Safe” (for particular uses of a substance), CFR = Code of Federal Regulations

They go on to note: “The petition is specific for HFS-42, but may include HFS-55 on review of its additional processing steps.”

I’m not a lawyer, but to me that sounds like HFS-55 had not actually been approved for use as a direct human food ingredient at the time that cola manufacturers were starting to use it.  (I guess they must have just done that after the fact.)

HFS-55 vs. HFS-42

“The carbonated beverage industry is the largest user of HFS-42 and -55.” (p. 729S)  HFS-42 is primarily used in non-colas and HFS-55 in many colas, though colas can also be made using more HFS-42.  (See the graphic above about the use of sugar vs. HFCS by food vs. beverage manufacturers.)

In 1993 more than than 90% of energy-containing carbonated beverages produced in the U.S. were sweetened with HFS.

If I understand Hannover and White correctly, before 1984 most colas apparently were sweetened with HFS-42 and after 1984 with HFS-55.  In other words, the HFCS had approximately a 13% increase in the amount of fructose in it after the switch.

More importantly, the ratio of fructose to glucose changed from 42:53 to 55:42.  Why is that important?

Fructose malabsorption

Too much fructose in the diet can cause irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal problems.  However, studies have found that the problems are reduced when fructose is consumed with glucose.  (A certain percentage of the population is more prone to this, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for most people.)

This is where you run into the problems of fructose metabolic products related to metabolic syndrome.   (The results of some studies also suggested that fructose malabsorption and metabolism problems were more likely to be associated with copper deficiency.)

Is HFCS the biggest problem?

I was going to say that HFCS is not the innocent player some portray it to be, then I realized that’s not really accurate.  The use of HFCS is not in and of itself the problem; the problem is food and beverage manufacturers putting it in almost every food and beverage they can.  It’s cheaper than refined sugar.  And most fast food places and restaurants reportedly make a higher profit margin off of soft drinks.  Once HFCS was introduced soft drink ingredients became so inexpensive that a lot of places started offering free refills.  I’m sure someone has brought that up before, but perhaps free refills are one of the main contributing factors to the increase in obesity (!?).   When people had to pay for a second glass of soda, they drank less.  Sorry, I don’t have a citation for that, but that seems obvious.  (Okay, I had to check.  I did a search on Google Scholar on +”obesity epidemic” +”free refills” and got 21 hits.   Google Scholar searches the scientific literature and books, as opposed to the entire Web.)

One example (with excerpt containing search terms):

Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia

H Basciano, L Federico, K Adeli – Nutrition & Metabolism, 2005 – biomedcentral.com
in humans and animals, but the emphasis on fat reductions has had no significant benefits relative to the obesity epidemic. bombarded by huge million-dollar advertising campaigns for soft drinks, offered extra-extra-large serving sizes with free refills.

Apparently this is known as “portion distortion.”

Put that together with chronic overconsumption of sugar (regardless of whether they’re fructose or sucrose), unbalanced diets (deficiencies in vitamin D?), and not as much exercise as we should be getting.

Then throw in genetics, add a good dose of epigenetics in the form of gene-environment interactions, and you have all the conditions for development of metabolic syndrome and an obesity epidemic.

More on this in another post.


Dietary Assessment of Major Trends in U.S. Food Consumption, 1970-2005, by Hodan Farah Wells and Jean C. Buzby, Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-33) 27 pp, March 2008, http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EIB33/


  1. Ringing your hands about the proportions to glucose and fructose in high fructose corn syrup misses the forest for the trees. Although HFCS-42 is not used as much as HFCS-55, across the entire food industry to total number of calories from the fructose portion of high fructose corn syrup is similar to sucrose.
    The trouble is that parsing the difference between fructose and glucose distracts us from the fundamental fact that all sugars are created equal with respect to the number of calories they have. The problem now is that too many food companies are marketing their products as high fructose corn syrup-free.

    Comment by Justin Wilson — April 19, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    • I would refer you to Dr. Lustig’s presentation (link found elsewhere on this blog) that how particular sugars are metabolized may matter more than the number of calories they contain. However, for most people you’re right, whether they’re consuming 15 tsps of sucrose and 15 tsps of fructose a day vs. 9 tsps of fructose, 9 tsps of glucose, and 12 tsps of sucrose probably doesn’t matter since in either case they’re consuming much too much sugar period.

      I am not opposed to the use of HFCS per se, because food companies will just replace it with sucrose (which is half fructose). A couple of months ago before I had become aware of some of this and before I had started cutting sugars out of my diet (mostly by not drinking sodas), I had bought some of the “throwback” sodas. A 12 oz. can of Pepsi contained 40 g of sugar (“real” sugar ;-) ) and a 12 oz. can of Coke contained 39 g (both listed the % daily value as 13% of total carbs for a 2,000 calorie a day diet). In other words, each contained more than 9 teaspoons worth of sugar! Then I looked at a bottle of 100% juice blend I had bought. 35 g of sugars! I was sort of stunned. Then I realized that to make matters worse the fruit juice serving size was 8 oz.! In other words, 12 oz. of the 100% fruit juice contained approximately 52 g of sugars (more than 12 tsps of sugar!). Or, 18% of total carbs. Almost one-fifth of the carbs in one glass of juice! And that all came from juice concentrates. No added sugar.

      That really makes me wonder about how much sugar the party punch would contain if you followed the recipe on the label. 4 cups of sherbet, 2 cups of orange juice, 3/4 cup of sugar, 6 cups (48 oz.) of juice blend, and two 28 oz. bottles of ginger ale. Supposed to make thirty 4-oz. servings. (Yeah, right.) Talk about a sugar overload!

      Comment by Myles Tougeau — April 19, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    • I also meant to say that the reason I included the information from the article about the percentages of the various sugars in the various HFSs was that the sweetener industry claims that the ratio of fructose to glucose in the American diet hasn’t changed since the 1960s. I don’t buy that. But even the ratio hasn’t changed appreciably, what has changed is we’re consuming a lot more sugar and are probably consuming a lot less fiber, less milk, less omega-3 fatty acids, and are getting less sun exposure than we were fifty years ago. (Some studies indicate that for some groups vitamin D and calcium deficiencies can contribute to insulin resistance.)

      Comment by Myles Tougeau — April 19, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

      • I did a few quick calculations of the total fructose utilization from the USDA’s data: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Sugar/data.htm#yearbook (table 30).

        The USDA reports that we consume 3.2 million tons of HFCS-42 and 4.8 million tons of HFCS-55. Total consumption of all high fructose corn syrup is 8 million tons. Here’s the basic math:

        3.2*.42 = 1.3 million tons of fructose from HFCS-42
        4.8*.55 = 2.7 million tons of fructose from HFCS-55

        Combined HFCS-42 and HFCS-55 provide 4m tons of fructose to our diet, the remaining 4m tons come from glucose.

        The point is that in total, high fructose corn syrup is no more a contributor of fructose to our diet than sucrose (50% fructose / 50% glucose).

        Comment by Justin Wilson — April 20, 2010 @ 11:03 am

  2. Your argument has one major flaw. Those are totals and are not necessarily representative of what the ratio of fructose to glucose is in individual foods or beverages or in individuals’ diets. People who are overweight or obese could still be consuming foods and beverages with high fructose to glucose ratios. Others could be consuming foods with low fructose to glucose ratios. The USDA figures can’t tell you that. (What they do tell us is that Americans consume too much sugar.)

    Comment by Myles Tougeau — April 20, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

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