Table Sugar vs. High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Which is Worse?


Coca-Cola sold in the US is made with high-fructose corn syrup, while in Mexico, it’s made with cane sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has gotten a bad rap for the past few years. Popular belief is that it’s worse for our health than sugar. In fact, a good friend of mine regular buys “Mexican Coca-Cola” rather than mainstream Coke because it’s made with cane sugar instead of HFCS. According to some sources, there’s a “Mexican Coke Craze” afoot in the US for this very reason.

(And yes, Coke is not an ideal  beverage by any stretch of the imagination—both from a health and a social responsibility perspective. But I digress….)

So, is the Mexican Coke Fan Club onto something? Is high-fructose corn syrup worse for you than sugar?

In a word, no.

In “Sickeningly Sweet,” our upcoming issue of the Green American, we detail numerous health effects that have been increasingly linked to overconsumption of added sugars—from obesity and heart disease to diabetes and stroke to Alzheimer’s and cancer. The culprit behind those ill effects is fructose—the sweet molecule in both table sugar and HFCS.

HFCS is 55 percent fructose, while table sugar is close behind at 50 percent. At only five percent more fructose content than HFCS, table sugar is pretty much the same dietary nightmare as HFCS.

When you eat fruit, which contains fructose, the fiber helps you digest it slowly, so you don’t get the blood-sugar spikes that contribute to ill health. Also, as blog commenter and holistic health coach Maria Hoffmeyer noted on a previous post, “The fructose in fruit comes in a package including fiber. The fiber slows down the digestion and your liver doesn’t get hit with it all at once like it does with the processed forms. Just like we ideally don’t overwhelm our liver with alcohol, we would do well to have some consideration for it as well with fructose.”

In addition, both table sugar and HFCS are highly likely to be genetically modified (GM). (What’s wrong with GM foods? See our “Frankenfood” issue for details!) Ninety-five percent of the sugar beets grown in the US are GM, which make up most of our domestic sugar supply. And if you see high-fructose corn syrup on a label, you should just assume it’s GM, as 88 percent of the corn that it comes from in the US is.

Bottom line, the Mayo Clinic notes that “controversy exists … about whether or not the body handles high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar.” But Mayo and Green America are on the same page when it comes to sugar and HFCS: Avoid overconsumption of both.

We at Green America take it a step further and say avoid both conventional table sugar and HFCS altogether for good health and to keep GM foods off your plate. (I should probably put quotes around “foods” when it comes after “GM” as a rule, right? Or you can just picture me making air quotes with my fingers….) If you do want to still enjoy sugary treats now and then (and how many of us are going to voluntarily give those up forever?), look for those made with cane sugar—preferably Fair Trade and organic. Cane sugar isn’t yet GM; the organic label limits the number and type of pesticides and herbicides applied to the crop; and the Fair Trade label ensures that sugar plantation workers were treated with respect, dignity, and fairness.  As for packaged foods, anything that’s certified organic will, as a rule, not contain any GM ingredients.

And, of course, everyone should try to stay within the American Heart Association recommendations most of the time for optimal health. If you want to use alternative sweeteners, see associate editor Martha van Gelder’s comparison chart in the upcoming Green American, and view her fun video preview here.

I’m happy to report that I’m doing really well with my new low-sugar, low-salt, high-leafy-green-stuff dietary adventure. As I noted previously, my palate has shifted, since I don’t get as much extra sugar and salt in my diet as I used to, and I now appreciate the natural sweetness of foods that previously didn’t taste like much at all (think roasted carrots). I feel great, I’ve lost some extra pounds that have been hanging on since my youngest daughter was born, and my mindless workday snacking is much more under control. I actually opt for carrots with raw almond butter more often than not, and I like them!

I did go off the rails the other day and have more than my fair share of Fair Trade dark chocolate, but I just jumped back on the wagon and continued my improved eating habits from that point on. The lesson there: Maybe it’s good to take a break from totally clean eating from time to time and indulge in a comfort food, to keep from feeling deprived and keep yourself on track.

How is your sugar-free or sugar-lite lifestyle coming along? Any new tips to share? Any thoughts on HFCS vs. sugar?

Categories: GMOs, good food, Sugar

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  1. HFCS is a MIXTURE of fructose and glucose. Table sugar is sucrose, which is a disaccharide composed of fructose and glucose bonded together. Please stop spreading the “5% difference” nonsense, it is chemically inaccurate. Ask any other chemist if you don’t believe this one.

    That said, you’re better off eating neither of them, but HFCS is less healthy as it is metabolized in the liver like ethanol.

    • Lance, it sounds like we are in violent agreement: It is best to avoid both table sugar and HFCS.
      We checked in with one of our science advisers, Joe Garman, Ph.D, physiology, a professor at Georgetown University, and he has a few minor differences with the information you post. First, table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose; HFCS is at least 55% fructose (and sometimes more, if industry packs it with extra fructose). So he doesn’t have any issue with the way we worded this post. Both table sugar and HFCS have roughly equivalent amounts of fructose, and we focus on the ill health effects of fructose in this post and in the upcoming Green American issue.
      As acknowledged above, there is controversy about whether the body handles HFCS differently than sugar, which I didn’t have the space to get into in this post. Dr. Garman notes that fructose can be metabolized in other parts of the body besides the liver, even when it comes from HFCS, though the liver ends up processing most of it. But he recommends not quibbling over these details and staying focused on the most important point all three of us agree on — avoid table sugar and HFCS.
      For those of you who want to learn more about the perspective of those who believe HFCS is even more problematic than table sugar, check out cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra’s work:

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