Companies remove corn syrup from foods — is it really worse than other sugars?

A nutrition label on a can of soda with the ingredient high fructose corn syrup.Matt Rourke / Today

Americans have a sweet tooth. We’re born with sweet receptors on our tongues to recognize “nature’s candy” —fruit as a pleasant sensation — to boost selection as part of a varied and healthful diet. But from sugar to artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup, how can you know what is really healthy for your family —or how much sugar is too much? 

The problem in our diet does not come from the sugar in foods, but from “added” sugars, a term referring to refined sugars coming from all sources. Recommendations from the American Heart Association suggest an intake of around 6 teaspoons daily for women, and around 9 for men. That’s about 5 percent of total daily calories, or 100 – 150 calories per day. 

Estimates for the average American’s daily added sugar intake are roughly 22 teaspoons a day.

The health risks of too much sugar include tooth decay, heart disease and excess weight gain, which can increase risk of diabetes.

Drinks are a major source of added sugars, with a 12-ounce soda containing about 10 teaspoons of sugar. And with the super-sizing of drinks, a “single serving” can easily add up to 20 teaspoons. 

It’s not just the obvious sources of added sugars like cakes, cookies, and candy that are a problem, as serving sizes increase these can become a major source of hidden sugars. It’s the “hidden sugars” in many foods that are surprising. Just a tablespoon of ketchup has 1 teaspoon of sugar, and a ½ cup of spaghetti sauce can have up to 3 teaspoons of sugar. Even healthful-sounding cereals like granola can have 2- 3 teaspoons of added sugar for just a ½ cup serving.

Is honey, molasses, agave or other so-called healthier sugars really better? 
Sugar is found in nature as fruit (fructose), sugar cane, and sugar beets. Metabolically, the body sees nearly all sugars (except sugar alcohols, like xylitol or sorbitol) as the same thing. Avoid the health halo of sugars including brown sugar, honey, molasses, agave, evaporated cane syrup (which is white sugar with the water removed), or other “healthy” sounding sugars. It’s not a health plus to swap out table sugar for one of these.  

Cutting down on all added sugars is the major health advantage.

Is high fructose corn syrup worse than table sugar? 
Like other forms of added sugars, the body digests high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the same way as others. As a chemical structure, sucrose (table sugar) is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. HFCS is 45 percent fructose and 55 percent glucose, so that’s not a surprising fact. To date, the data are inconclusive that HFCS is any worse for your health than any other added sugar, but it doesn't seem to be. 

Many products have removed HFCS from products as a response to consumer demands, and replaced other sources of added sugars instead. The bigger health message remains to reduce all added sugars, and not a single form.

Do artificial sweeteners cause weight gain or other health risks? 
Cutting down added sugars can be tough, and that’s where low-calorie sweeteners can be a help for some people, whether to trim calories, or other health reasons, like diabetes. Also called non-nutritive sweeteners, or high intensity sweeteners, these sugar substitutes can be used alone to sweeten beverages, or in foods.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved five low-calorie sweeteners as ‘food additives”. This approval process has gone beyond GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, to a more rigorous safety standard of testing.

  • Saccharin (brand names include Sweet and Low)
  • Aspartame (brand names include Equal)
  • Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) (brand names include Sweet One)
  • Sucralose (brand names include Splenda)
  • Neotame (brand name Newtame).

FDA approval as a GRAS compound exists for two additional plant/fruit based low calorie sweeteners:

  • leaves of the Stevia plant (brand names include Truvia)
  • extracts from the Monk fruit plant (brand names include Nectresse)

The safety issues are well-established for this category, and all food products are labeled with the type of low-calorie sweetener added. For many drinks (including soda), a blend of low-calorie sweeteners is used to duplicate the taste and mouth feel of real sugar. Because these compounds are hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar, only a tiny fraction of a packet represents the active compound. The rest is “filler."

For many people, it’s not a concern of safety in using the low-calorie sweeteners, but whether this helps or hurts a weight loss effort. A growing body of data show that when used as part of a structured diet plan, low-calorie sweeteners can support successful weight loss. A new paper just published today in Obesity,indicates that people using low-calorie sweetened drinks lost more weight than those drinking water only. This paper adds to the growing literature that,used as intended, these products can support a weight-loss effort.

That doesn’t mean replacing a meal with a diet beverage to save calories. Or adding diet drinks to try to offset a high calorie meal. And for those who find it’s not a support, like any other weight loss tool, just don’t use them.

The bottom line?
When it comes to sugar and sugar substitutes, moderation is key. Use common sense, and adjust your portions accordingly to cut added sugars, and utilize low calorie sweeteners to support, not replace, a balanced daily calorie intake.