Even if you kicked your soda can habit years ago, chances are you're still getting more than your fair share of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). After all, it can be found in everything from fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt to many whole wheat breads. Last year alone the average American consumed 27 pounds of the sweet stuff, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That's down from the 37.5 pounds we averaged back in 1999, but unfortunately as we've "scaled back," we've made up for those lost calories by eating more good ol' fashioned sugar.
So, in the end, does it really matter how we get our sugar fix?
What's Really Inside Sugar?
Table sugar (a.k.a. sucrose), which comes from refined sugar beets and sugarcane, contains 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, both of which pack 16 calories per teaspoon. However, since fructose is sweeter than glucose, upping the fructose-to-glucose ratio is an inexpensive way for food manufacturers to sweeten their products and hook consumers, says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of The One One One Diet. In fact, HFCS, which typically contains about 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, is the most common source of fructose in the American diet.
Glucose vs. Fructose
Both are sugars, sure. But when glucose passes through the liver, the unsung organ decides whether it should be burnt now, stored for energy use later, or converted into triglycerides. Fructose, by contrast, bypasses this whole sorting process and is quickly converted to fat by the liver, according to research from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. What's more, since there are no chemical bonds between glucose and fructose molecules in HFCS as there are in table sugar, HFCS is more rapidly absorbed into your blood stream, spiking insulin levels and signaling the body to cling to fat, says Mark Hyman, M.D, author of The Blood Sugar Solution.
Another strike against HFCS: It may cause overeating and indirectly causing weight gain, according to a 2013 study from Yale University. The Yale researchers found that glucose "suppresses brain activity in regions that promote the desire to eat." In other words, when you eat glucose-containing foods you get full. Consuming fructose, however, doesn't seem to cause the brain to put the brakes on hunger. On top of that a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation found consuming fructose-sweetened beverages increases visceral fat and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight and obese people more than glucose-sweetened beverages do. And on top of that, research from a Princeton University animal study found that rats that ate high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight and abdominal fat and had higher circulating blood fats compared to critters that ate table sugar, even if they nibbled on the same number of calories.
You May Be Eating Mercury
HFCS has more going against it than bumping up fat production. One 2009 study by Environmental Health found that about half of commercially available high-fructose corn syrups contain mercury. Meanwhile, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reported that same year that mercury was present in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverages in which HFCS was the first or second labeled ingredient. Some HFCS manufacturers use a mercury-containing caustic soda to separate corn starch from the corn kernel, and that's why the toxic element is present. While mercury exposure from HFCS is small, according to the National Institutes of Health, long-term exposure to the toxin can cause neurological problems, including numbness, blindness, seizures, and even death.
Don't Be a Lazy Consumer
When shopping, read food labels and try to skip items that have HFCS on the list of ingredients—even if the food says it's "natural" or you find it in the health-foods aisle. Seemingly healthy foods like protein bars, whole-wheat breads, yogurts, fruit juice, and canned produce commonly use high-fructose corn syrup as a main ingredient.
Keep in mind, though, that while table sugar might not be as bad for your body as HFCS, it's still anything but good for your waistline or overall health. Sugar is linked to weight gain, diabetes, depression, and even addiction, according to Batayneh. You can find it masquerading on nutrition labels under such jibber jabber as maltose, dextrose, molasses, barley malt, ethyl maltol, and diatase—and that's just to name a few. If you don't recognize an ingredient on your nutrition label, look it up. That's what smartphones are for.