by Marion Nestle
Oct 26 2010

New study: HFCS-sweetened drinks higher in fructose than expected

I’ve been saying for ages that the sugar composition of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is no different from that of table sugar (sucrose).

Oops.  A new study in the journal, Obesity, actually measured the amounts and kinds of sugars in 23 kinds of HFCS-sweetened drinks.

The findings are summarized in a fact sheet:

  • The sugar content varied widely from amounts stated on labels.  Some drinks had 15% less sugar than labeled, but others had as much as 30% more.
  • On average, the drinks had 18% more fructose than expected.
  • Several brands of sodas seemed to be made with HFCS that is 65% fructose, not 55%.
  • The average amount of fructose in the drinks was 59%.

The press release points out one other finding.  You know how everyone thinks Mexican Coca-Cola is so much more delicious than American Coke because it is made with table sugar (sucrose), not HFCS?  Oops again.  The investigators could not find any sucrose in the Coke, but did find plenty of glucose and fructose.  This suggests that Mexican Coke is also made with HFCS (or it could also mean that the sucrose had been split into its constituent glucose and fructose).

To review the biochemistry: sucrose is a double sugar of glucose and fructose bonded together.  HFCS is glucose and fructose, separated.  The sucrose bond is quickly split in the intestine and its glucose and fructose are the same as those in HFCS.

The metabolic problems that result from sugar intake are mostly due to the fructose content.  Less is better for health.  More is better for the soft drink industry, however.  Fructose is sweeter than either glucose or sucrose, and sweet is what sells sodas.

At most, HFCS is supposed to be 55% fructose, as compared to the 50% in table sugar.  Most foods and drinks are supposed to be  using HFCS that is 42% fructose.  A percentage of 55 is not much different biologically than 50, which is why the assumption has been that there is no biologically meaningful difference between HFCS and table sugar.   This study, if confirmed, means that this supposition may need some rethinking.

The study names the beverages that contain 65% fructose: Coke, Pepsi, Sprite. It identifies Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and Arizona Ice Tea as containing close to 60% fructose.

If, in fact, the percentage of fructose is higher than advertised, it’s another good reason to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.

Addition and possible caution:  I’ve now heard separately from two experts on measuring sugars in beverages who point out serious flaws in the methods used in this study:

  • The results are based on one beverage sample, analyzed once.   Analytical methods invariably produce ranges of values and require multiple samples and analyses.
  • Measuring sugars in beverages is technically challenging and there are several possible methods, some of which give more accurate results than others.  Although the paper says the investigators used standard methods, it does not specify which.
  • The methods used did not seem to detect the small starches or maltose that are always present in HFCS.  If the methods “read” the little starches as fructose, the percentage could easily have been 59 rather than 55.
  • The drinks that contained 65% fructose were bottled drinks, and that is a concern.  The fountain drinks are mixed by the company–McDonald’s or Burger King–and could have been made too concentrated by whoever did the mixing.
  • The failure to find sucrose in Mexican Coca-Cola could be two to two reasons: the Coke is old and the sucrose “inverted” (split into glucose and fructose), or the company used HFCS instead of sucrose.

The bottom line remains the same: it’s best not to eat too much sugar or any kind.

Addition, October 27: Cara Wilking, an attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston, notes that this study raises the possibility that HFCS violates federal prohibitions against:

  • False and misleading food labeling
  • Food adulteration
  • False and misleading advertising

It will be interesting to follow how the lawyers deal with these issues.

  • Pete

    Studies finally catch up to anecdotal evidence. Awesome.

  • Kelly

    If fructose is in fruit? Why is fructose bad for health?

  • Marion, Have any of these studies analyzed the consumption levels over time and the addictiveness of HFCS-based drinks?

    Why is it that people drink larger and larger amounts of HFCS beverages over time? They don’t do that with other sweet beverages, such as orange juice or apple cider.

  • Love it. I do think however, that we need to be avoiding all sugar, HFCS being the worst.
    Kelly, Fructose in fruit is different that HFCS. It is rich in fiber and packaged the way mother nature intended us to enjoy.
    Do a youtube search and watch how HFCS is made….you will then understand why you need to avoid.
    Lastly, you can get too much frutose from fruit too. 2-3 servings of fruit per day are great. More than that = might not be so great for your health.
    Love you blog Marion! I am a fellow nutritionist and I often share your great work through social media! Thank you for spreading the great word :O)

  • Pete

    …just echoing Jamie’s comments.

    If you have time these videos are great on the subject of weight, insulin, health and fructose:

  • Renee

    @King Krak –I wonder if the difference in addiction comes down to price? Soda is cheap, orange juice –not so much.

  • AJ Huff

    I’ve been one of those Mexican Coke drinkers (Canadian is my first choice but where am I going to get that in Georgia?), up until a year ago when I noticed it seemed different. Mouth fell was different, not as crisp. I checked the label and noticed that it NOW read “made with sucrose and/or high fructose corn syrup. I’m betting more “or” than “and.”

  • Emily

    Sticking with Michael Pollan on this: if my grandparents wouldn’t have recognized it as food, it’s not food, and I’m not interested in eating anything that’s not food, even if it’s edible.

  • Larry Hobbs

    I reviewed the article and found several areas that could have lead to the surprising results that the authors reported.
    42 and 55% high fructose syrups are identified in the Code of Federal Regulations CFR 182 and 184 and in the High Fructose Syrup 42 and 55 Guidelines published by the International Society of Beverage Technologists, a professional scientific society dedicated to the technical and scientific aspects of soft drinks.
    The standards of identity for 55 % high fructose syrups call for 55% minimum fructose and 95% minimum dextrose and fructose, total .The remaining 5% consists of higher sugars mainly maltose and maltotriose. As the authors correctly point out, significant differences in the levels of fructose and dextrose in these syrups would impact the taste of the finish product and are rigidly controlled by both the producing company as well as the purchaser
    In the case of 42% high fructose syrups the standards call for 42% minimum fructose and a 92% minimum total of dextrose and fructose with the remaining 8% being made up of other sugars- mainly maltose and maltotriose.
    In the 1980’s the sweetener industry consisting of manufacturers and end users participated in a blind study of thousands of samples representing shipments of these products to determine a representative average of the saccharide distribution in these syrups to create standards by which these sweeteners could be accurately measured. Unless all of the saccharides are accounted for in representative numbers it will be impossible to correctly identify the carbohydrate profile of these syrups.
    I noticed that no reference is made to the higher saccharides present in the solutions studied by Ventura, Davis and Goran, implying that they have been included either with the dextrose or the fructose portion. Having 5 to 8% of the saccharides unaccounted for or incorrectly added to another sugar will definitely distort the results. Since the mean of the samples that were higher than 55% was 59%, it would imply that the higher sugars have been added to the fructose portion during the analysis.
    In addition, as you noted, acidic solutions such as soft drinks, containing sucrose invert over time. This natural breakdown of the sucrose molecule results in the formation of a molecule of dextrose as well as one of fructose. It should not be surprising then to find a mixture of these sugars present in soft drinks containing some amount of sucrose as would likely be the case with soft drinks produced in Mexico or some of the recent reformulations of beverages in the US.
    I believe that the authors have correctly commented on the possibility of error in the ratio of syrup to water in the fountain beverage results. Although not common, it does occasionally occur as most of us as consumers have encountered.
    I would certainly agree that more testing is in order to verify theses results. The International Society of Beverage technologists would be happy to provide methods of analysis that have been widely used in the US industry and abroad since they were developed thirty years ago.

    Larry Hobbs
    Executive Director,
    International Society of Beverage Technologists.

  • The abnormal results published in this study may have resulted from inadvertent errors in the analysis of the sugar content. For example, key factors in analyzing sugars were either overlooked or were not mentioned in the study, including not accounting for sucrose inversion (the breaking down of table sugar in certain Ph environments), or the presence of higher sugars (which were left out of the analysis or could have been erroneously added to the fructose content). Moreover, the authors did not specify which analytical method they used and how the samples were prepared, which could also compromise the findings from this study.

    It is important to have the sugars content replicated by a recognized standard setting body, like the International Society of Beverage Technologists, to confirm the validity of the results before any inferences can be drawn.

    Audrae Erickson
    Corn Refiners Association

  • Liz

    Something else to consider re: Sugar in Mexican Coke. My brother-in-law brought us Cokes from Mexico in plastic bottles and they did not taste like the ones we get in the glass bottles. Also, the labeling of the sugar was different. The plastic bottles say “azucars.” Sugars. I thought the glass bottles were labeled “cane sugar” (in Spanish, of course) The ones in glass taste much less sticky sweet. Is this a difference between glass and plastic, or is there more than one formula being bottled? And for this study, the plastic bottle Coke was tested?

  • Pjay

    I’m wondering if Coke and other manufacturers are still making the kosher sodas that come out at a particular time of year with the yellow caps for Jewish people. I’d be interested to see how much they’re fudging it and where.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Emily — your grandparents wouldn’t recognize Coke today for a couple reasons — bigger bottle, no coca leaf extract! Our grandparents ate lots of sugar though, it’s just it was used for home baked hand-made goods (lots of manual activity to get that done), usually with grains and fruit.

    But this is really a forest and trees issue isn’t it. If we spend too much time deciding if HFCS is better or worse or the same as sugar, we’re spending too little time discussing real solutions to our obesity problems. I think we’re looking for some one, some thing, some company to blame for a huge societal issue that we are partly responsible for.

    A minute amount of mercury in foreign made HFCS? While our own rivers are polluted every day? A minute impact on liver fat stores? While our energy imbalance is scarring children’s livers?

    I’m as guilty as everyone else. I tried to find nasty stuff about HFCS. But it was splitting hairs. It doesn’t really matter.

    If Coke/Pepsi switch over to 100% sucrose, is that really going to solve our problems? Are we really looking to them to fix things for us?

  • jessi

    The biggest problem I’ve read about Fructose, over the other sugars, is how quickly it’s metabolized into fat. It doesn’t allow enough time to burn off as energy, even if we weren’t such a sedentary culture. It’s in almost every processed food, which is the cheapest food to buy, therefore people are more likely to buy it. It’s in most of the carbs we eat, which doubles the sugar we’re putting into our bodies because carbs turn to sugar then metabolize into fat. When the FDA and USDA tell us we’re supposed to have 8-10 servings of grains every day, this is what happens!!!

    Which of course makes me wonder, being a conspiracy theorist and all, if all this is done on purpose to keep big pharmaceutical companies rolling in the dough from all the medications we purchase to fix these health problems that are caused by malnutrition.

    🙂 Think about it!

  • Dave9

    The big problem, to first order, is not the kind or ratio of sugars contained in the food, it’s the _quantity_:

    If your source of sugar is cheaper, then you can increase the size of the beverage while maintaining your profit, while the customer believes he’s getting a better value…

  • Cynthia1770

    I feel exonerated. I have been preaching, that since HFCS is only a
    mixture of glucose and fructose, the CRA or food manufacturers can manipulate the fru:glu ratio anyway they please. Why? Because it
    will always ring in at 4 cal/g and will be “nutritionally equivalent” to sucrose. HFCS-42 and HFCS-55 appear to be close to the midline mark of sucrose 50:50, until you do some basic calculations.
    In an HFCS-55 sweetened drink there is, compared to glucose, 22% more fructose. And now, random sampling has revealed that there
    is a wide range in the the range of fructose present in drinks. Compound this information with the fact that HFCS-90 is used in
    some low-cal beverages to impart the same sweeteness with fewer calories, and you arrive at this conclusion: When you buy anything with HFCS, you do not know how much fructose you are ingesting.
    (Well you don’t, but your liver does.)
    At first I was adamant that HFCS not be replaced with the term corn sugar. Now my approach is different. The CRA can call it anything they want, corn sugar, cornsweet, Audrae’s ambrosia. But we should all demand to know what percentage fructose is in the product, for example, corn sugar-F65.
    Cynthia Papierniak, M.S.

  • Eileen

    I notice some representation from the “industry”. Well hear this:
    Go ahead and split hairs about the percentage of fructose in the HFCS. Go ahead and rename HFCS “corn sugar. Heck, call it “magical corn sugar fairies” for all I care. My point is that people are getting smarter about reading labels. People are starting to care, on a large scale, about things they eat. The movement BACK toward real food is growing in momentum and it may take years, but believe me it will impact your jobs in a big way. There will always be some people who will consume your products due to ignorance or for financial reasons, but they will eventually be outnumbered by the rest of us.

  • Amber & Mr. Pups

    Don’t drink sodas. What about all the other ingredients that are in there. We don’t know what they are or where they come from.

    I do not think it is safe to drink period. If you really need something sweet to drink, get a bag of sugar or squeeze some juice and mix with club soda.

    Just because our governmet approves an ingredient doesn’t mean it’s healthy or safe.

  • Dr. James Rippe

    I would offer the following comments on this recently released study.

    1. The hypothesis that fructose is dangerous to health is not proven. Fructose is metabolized very differently when in the presence of glucose (such as in sucrose or high fructose corn syrup) than it is when it is present by itself.

    2. Published research from my laboratory was conducted using sodas sweetened with both sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (from manufacturers listed in this article as having “high” levels of fructose). We did not find high levels of fructose, nor did we find any metabolic differences between sucrose and high fructose corn syrup, nor did we find any metabolic abnormalities.

    3. The finding that there was no sucrose in Mexican Coca Cola is most likely a result of the fact that sucrose breaks down into its constituent parts (fructose and glucose) in acidic environments, such as soft drinks. The process is accelerated if the soft drinks are not refrigerated. We have no idea how long the Mexican Coca Cola sat around. It is possible that all of the sucrose, by that point, had been converted to fructose and glucose.

    4. This is one isolated experiment. Let’s not leap to conclusions. While I am not a sugar biochemist, I wonder about the methodology of this study. Let’s see if anyone else can duplicate their findings. It is very dangerous to generalize based on one isolated experiment.

    5. It is important not to confuse high fructose corn syrup with pure fructose. The leading source of fructose in the American diet is sucrose and worldwide, nine times as much sucrose is consumed as high fructose corn syrup.

    This study is an interesting one, but far from conclusive.

    James M. Rippe, M.D.
    Professor of Biomedical Science, University of Central Florida
    Founder/Director, Rippe Lifestyle Institute

  • Mila Jovovich

    It is definite that drinks should be taken so not too sweet because the sugar is dangerous for diabetics according findrxonline points and it is preferable that these health care the right way

  • DC

    The financial bottom line of these companies is in opposition to your health. Everything that is sold to you in disposable packages slowly dehumanizes you.

    Push back

  • catsndogs

    I think that given the techical limitations of testing sugars and the fact that not enough research has been done on HFCS (especially by unbiased sources), it is way too early to assert that it is safe to consume. And anything coming from the Corn Refiners and related industries should be completely disregarded for obvious reasons. When the corn syrup industry asserts that consuming HSFC and sugar are the same thing and both should be done in “moderation” it is a distraction from it being in almost every single processed food there is. If you consume processed foods (including soda) you are surely consuming HFCS in excess. One should also consider the difference between the processing methods for HFCS and sugar. (Watch “King Corn” , which shows the process needed to get HFCS and also shows the filmakers being repeatedly refused tours of HFCS processing plants for “proprietary” reasons. Mmm….riiiiiiight. 🙂 )

    It is obivious that we should not be consuming so much sugar, but I personally think that eating any HFCS is especially dangerous, considering what a new product it is, its ubiquitousness and the process needed to obtain it.

  • Mike Miller

    Here’s a shock, the number one partner of Dr. James Rippe’s center in Florida is PepsiCo. Wonder if that might taint his science a bit?

  • Pingback: Step away from the Coke, Pepsi, and Sprite « Green Bandwagon()

  • Cathy Richards

    @ Dr. James Rippe — nice that you can post comments to a public blog without stating potential conflicts. When I checked out your Institute’s website I saw the following list of major food and beverage processing companies:
    Con Agra Foods
    Evian Waters of France, Inc.
    General Mills, Inc.
    The Kellogg Company
    PepsiCo NA

    I’ll try not to be sarcastic in my suggestion that your Lifestyle Institute could look into seeking some clients that distribute fresh fruits and vegetables. They could really use the support of a cardiologist.

    And I’ll end with a snippet from the Hippocratic Oath:

    …I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
    …If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

    I trust that the research you do has been, and will always be, commited to the goal of a healthy population.

  • Suzanne

    Can I tell you how much I enjoy Marion’s savvy readers challenging the Big Food industry types? Makes my day.

  • Pingback: Really Really High Fructose Corn Syrup « Weight loss with acai berry diet()

  • @Cathy Richards- I loved your first comment (no complaints with your second one, either, really). I am watching in dismay as people around me get so focused on using cane sugar over HFCS. The focus should be on cutting down on ALL sugars. I worry that we’ll make a big fuss, get the big food companies to switch to sucrose, and find that we’re still fat and unhealthy.

    @Jessi, not that you’ll believe me, since I am an industry insider (I work in biotech drug discovery and development)… but the problem with your conspiracy theory is that we don’t actually have very good drugs to treat obesity and type II diabetes. I guess you could argue that the cardiovascular drugs like Lipitor are selling more because we’re all fat. But really, a conspiracy like you propose would mean that a huge number of scientists are colluding to make America unhealthy. Trust me, this wouldn’t happen. We can’t even agree about where to go buy lunch.

  • Jalley

    smoke and mirrors again – debating over the “study’s” methodology when this shouldn’t even be the discussion!

    Let’s just take a look at the word Nutrient and how it SHOULDN”T even be used when discussing food:

    Wiki say’s:

    A nutrient is a chemical that an organism needs to live and grow or a substance used in an organism’s metabolism which must be taken in from its environment.[1] Nutrients are the substances that enrich the body.

    Fructose, glucose of ANY kind is NOT a nutrient, it is an additive and NOT necessary and does NOT enrich the human body.

  • Pingback: Study: Hey, Hipsters, Mexican Coke Might Be a Myth – TIME Healthland()