by Marion Nestle
Sep 25 2012

HFCS vs. Sugar, and vice versa: eat less of both!

I’ve been trying to keep track of the legal dispute between the Corn Refiners (representing manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup—HFCS) and the Sugar Association, which represents growers of sugar beets and cane (sucrose).

Recall: HFCS is glucose and fructose separated, whereas sucrose is glucose and fructose stuck together.  Because they are biochemically pretty much the same (enzymes that split sucrose act quickly), they have the same effects in the body.

So the dispute is about market share, not science.

First, the Corn Refiners tried to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.”  The FDA turned this down (as well it should).

Then, the Sugar makers sued the Corn Refiners, claiming that the Corn Refiners’ public education marketing campaign was false and misleading because it promoted HFCS as “natural” (It’s not, in my opinion) and nutritionally and metabolically equivalent to other forms of sugar (which it is).

Then, the Corn Refiners countersued on the basis that Sugar lobbying groups are tricking the public into believing that sucrose is healthier than HFCS (it’s not) and trying to create a “health halo” for sucrose (absurd).

As Food Navigator puts it, the two associations are “trading insults.”

While all this is going on, a group called Citizens for Health has filed a petition with FDA to put the concentration of fructose in HFCS on package labels.  HFCS is usually 42% or 55% fructose (it is 50% in sucrose).  These forms of HFCS are considered by FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

The petition argues that some products have more fructose—65% or 90%—and should say so.

All sugars should be consumed in small quantities, but fructose especially so.

The Corn Refiners say that Citizens for Health, which sponsors a website called, is funded by the Sugar Association.

Also in the meantime, a new study says HFCS has nothing whatsoever to do with obesityGuess who sponsored the study.

Advice for today: eat less sugar(s), meaning sucrose, glucose, fructose, table sugar, HFCS, corn sugar, and all the other euphemisms food companies use to deflect attention from how much their products contain.

  • Allen

    I still haven’t seen high fructose corn syrup on my grocer’s shelves. Probably doesn’t taste very good by itself or on pancakes. I’ve dumped most sugar anyway because the sugar beet growers jumped on the GMO bandwagon. Cane sugar for me.

  • Mark

    This reminds me of a question that has been bugging me for a while. Where does this Stevia sweetener fall in the realm of sugars, or is it really not a sugar at all?

  • TR

    Stevia is not a sugar. We do not derive any calories from it. Its chemical structure has nothing to do with carbohydrates. It only tastes sweet because it stimulates the “sweet” receptors on the tongue as do all other noncarbohydrate sweeteners.

    This exchange of insults between the two associations is rather laughable. I think it deserves a skit on Saturday Night Live.
    Its kinda like calling mud dirt. “there’s mud on you.” “no its dirt!”

  • I agree with all your points, Marion, however I had heard that our bodies metabolize hfcs differently than sugar. My biggest concern with this debate is the confusion it creates for consumers. There are messages in the media that portray hfcs as natural, which it is not. Also, people could assume that it’s okay to have more of one kind because it’s “not as bad” as the other. The bottom line is that we all need to consume less of both.

  • Why do you say we should “especially” eat less fructose, in particular? I know of the UCLA study that showed cancer cells (in the lab) feeding on fructose and not glucose, but haven’t come across much else on that front. Any studies you could provide that indicate why glucose or sucrose might be better choices than fructose? Thanks!

  • Marianne

    Wilder – When glucose first enters a cell, it triggers a cellular response which increases the number of enzyme (glucokinase) that helps process and deal with the glucose. When fructose enters a cell, there is a fixed number of enzyme (fructokinase) that process and deal with the fructose. Fructose metabolism is slow going compared to glucose metabolism and can, therefore, lead the body to store the fructose as fat. Fructose consumed in large quantities all at once increases the risk for fatty liver disease or fat being stored in the liver in general. Fructose consumed in small quantities over a longer period of time reduces the risk of storing fructose as fat. Here’s a scientific explanation:

    My question: I understand that a sugar is a sugar in any form, but I’m still hesitant. Recently, I’ve become aware of people limiting the amount of fruit their children (or themselves) consume because of high sugar intake or the resultant sugar high. Should people and parents be concerned that fruit has too much sugar and, therefore, limit the amount of fruit eaten?

  • Abby

    I have struggled with the fruit limiting question for a few years now after establishing what sort of impact high sugar diets have on my own well-being. I love fruit and have had a hard time straying from the idea that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

    Unfortunately, modern day fruit has been bred to specifically enhance sugar content in an effort to increase palatability and marketable-ness (word?). In a lot of fruits this has taken away from its beneficial qualities. Traditionally, fruit was much smaller, less sweet and available in less quantities. Thus, our sugar intake was more controlled because it was not as available. I think we as a nation have been conditioned to eat more than what is probably healthy and could stand to consume less, or at least fruits that are more “wild” and haven’t been selectively bred for sugar content (I’ve read that wild blueberries and other berries have a higher ratio of other nutrients to sugar content for this reason).

    That being said, it is apple season in the northeast and I am going to gorge. Then, come November, I will most likely not eat any until next fall when they are in season again. I think eating local and in season is a good way to curb our tendency to overeat things we think are healthy for us (like fruit) because their window of deliciousness is so much smaller.

    Thanks again for starting discussions like these Marionne!

  • Michael Bulger

    The amount of sugar in fruit varies depending upon the type of fruit. For instance, the USDA lists a medium-size raw apple as containing about 19 grams of sugar. A large orange has even less at about 17 grams of sugar. That cup of grapes? About 15 grams of sugar.

    In contrast, a 20 oz. Coca-Cola comes with around 65 grams of sugar.

    Fruit also comes with good stuff. Along with those grams of sugar, you’re munching on vitamins, antioxidants, essential fatty-acids and amino acids. According to dietary research, the average American should actually be eating more fruit as part of a healthy diet. Eating a 2 to 4 servings of fruit a day is associated with good health. (A medium apple or a banana is considered a serving.)

    So is eating about 30-50 daily grams of the sugar in fruit problematic? I don’t see any serious indication of it in the research I have done. The real culprits are the unnecessary added sugars that are piled on top of a healthy diet. Before you limit healthy fruit, limit the soda and desserts that are adding much more sugar without the health benefits.

    (And most of us can stand to eat more fruit, so enjoy those apples! I’m going apple-picking soon, sugar and health included.)

  • Diane in Los Angeles

    I don’t deliberately limit my fruit intake–the high price of the best-tasting stuff does tend to limit things naturally. But I am disturbed by the trend to breed fruits for more and more sugar–it’s dumbing down our collective palates in a disturbing way, and at my local supermarket, it’s getting harder to find fruit that is not so sugary it is pointless. Super sweet apples, white peaches and nectarines, plums and pluots and apricots bred for blandness. I doubt that they have that much more sugar in them to make a dramatic impact on their nutritional profile, but they do contribute to our expectations of sweet blandness that drives the push to add more sugar to everything.

  • Dear Marion,

    Terrific post! It’s so strange, America (and her children) have never been fatter or sicker and we can’t seem to figure out why. Meanwhile we have the food and beverage industry telling us everything is fine with our food supply, and compared to 40 years ago, I need a PhD in Chemistry to read food labels.

    After I experienced cancer at age 38 (nearly 12 years ago) I keep it simple. If I can’t make it in my kitchen (i.e. high fructose corn syrup) I don’t want it in my food.

    Thanks again for your post. I love the one comment about dirt….so true.

    Common sense is not so common. – Voltaire

  • Greg

    ?? to everyone in this thread that is talking about eating too much fruit etc. the high price of real fruit is not a good thing. It’s all about what the fruit displaces when consumed; modern cultivars are very high in sugar, but eating solid fruit is still a lot better for you than juice or refined sweeteners, fructose or no fructose.

    My local grocery store sells peaches for more than a bag of flavored corn chips. $1.59 for the corn chips, total of 1600 calories, and $1.80 or so for a single peach. $3.29 per pound and moderately large peaches, yes, that is what it comes down to.

    The high cost of fruit is not some sort of “feature”.

  • Greg

    Oh, and this is in Canada, too, so you can’t blame corn subsidies.

  • Anthro

    I appreciate Michael’s comments and calorie counts, but I also share Abby and Diane’s concerns about fruit being bred for ever-increasing sweetness. I have planted an apple tree on my city lot and am harvesting my first crop (eight apples) this year–the third. It is Fuji apples and I suppose they are as sweet as the apples at the store, but they sure taste better so far! Freshness counts for a lot. Also, they are quite small, although respectable in size.

    What is a “medium” apple anyway? Most everything in the produce department these days, even organic, is humongous–large seems to be the only size available.

    I eat more veggies than fruit, but even veggies like carrots are bred for maximum sweetness. I searched at length this year for tomatoes that were bred before the trend to hardness and even ripening which has been at the expense of flavor. I found one older breed and they have turned out to be very tasty and ripen just fine as well.

    I haven’t had a soda (or any sweetened beverage) for 40 years, so perhaps I don’t need to worry about the fruit, but I still seek out wild varieties (especially blueberries) and grow as much as I can on my city lot–it simply tastes better!

  • Celeste

    Sugar is sugar. Avoid it all if possible. Even fruit should be limited. Women who suffer from hot flashes can reduce them by eliminating sugar from their diets. We have become a nation of sugar addicts.

  • Great article. The whole case is absurd yet entertaining. To weigh in on the fruit debate- I recently did a lot of research on this- primarily to answer that debacle and wrote a post and guide on all types of sugar, including natural sugars from fruit. You can check it out at

    My general conclusion is that fruit is better than other forms of sugar, due to its lower glycemic index and the fact that it often comes with vitamins and minerals. However, not all fruits are created equal.

    Also, Marion- I was under the impression that the jury was still out on if HFCS was metabolized differently than plain sucrose. Most of the studies I read that said otherwise were sponsored by the corn industry or a similar interest (surprise).

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  • Jack Christey

    If sucrose and HFCS are basically the same, why should those fighting the case be able to argue that one is better or healthier than another?

    Who pulls these guys up on their claims if the Judiciary won’t? I’ve been trying to work out how these sorts of disputes stand up in court at my blog and i’m constantly confused by how these issues blind people from the real issues –> Sugar isn’t a healthy option, regardless of it’s type and should be consumed in moderation. Trying to attach health claims are misleading and at worst, dangerous.

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