The scoop on sweets, part four: the final chapter, finally.

Wanna get caught up on the sugar series before reading the last page of the book? If so, feel free to peruse Part 1 (artificial sweeteners), Part 2 (what sugar does to your body), and Part 3 (so what do I use again?).

Finally! The last in my series on sugar, wherein I tackle the remaining messy bits of sugary debate: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and agave nectar. I procrastinated on this one a bit because it was a big subject to tackle; both of these sweeteners are surrounded in controversy (much more for HFCS than agave), and while I think that the evidence stacked against HFCS is clear and damning, there is much money at stake in convincing the public otherwise, leaving an often-confused consumer (who to believe? if it’s so bad, why does the FDA let people use it?). On a grand scale of edible danger, I personally put aspartame in a much more lethal category than either of these sweeteners. But I still avoid them in my home, and following is why.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

When all the bad press started to come out about this sweetener, a friend of mine sat down to google it, and landed immediately on a site that told her, “HFCS is the chemical and nutritional equivalent to table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition, and are metabolized identically.” She read the information aloud to me, and then said, “So I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just sugar.”  Then I asked her to look at the bottom of the site, to see who is funding it. The answer? The Corn Refiner’s Association. And this is where all of the logic starts to get really, really fuzzy.

If you visit the website, the homepage (as of February 19, 2011) lists the facts below (quoted directly). But like a used car salesman telling only half-truths about the history of a car, these statements are somewhat misleading, and leave out the parts that can be negatively construed. Taken apart one by one:

High fructose corn syrup is composed of the same two simple sugars (fructose and glucose) as table sugar, honey and maple syrup.

Ok, yes. HFCS is composed of both fructose and glucose, just like sugar, honey, and maple syrup. The big differences are 1) the highly-processed nature of HFCS compared to these other sweeteners (even sugar, in its most refined white state, is not as processed as HFCS), and 2) the ratio of fructose to glucose in the chemistry. In short, fructose is bad news. It does wacky things to your liver, and is converted to fat more readily than its partner glucose. The percentage of fructose in HFCS ranges from about 55% (in soft drinks) to a staggering 90% (ironically in many “diet” foods, where the intense sweetness of fructose is preferred). Since table sugar, honey, and maple syrup all have about 50% fructose, the industry claims that the extra 5% in HFCS is negligible. But research shows that there is something in that 5% that is much more significant than a bar graph might indicate. That seemingly small percentage seems to tip the body’s metabolic scales, causing reactions that go beyond what is predicted by corn chemists on paper (more about a comparison study feeding table sugar or HFCS to lab rats, below).

There has been much confusion about this natural sweetener made from corn. We want to clear up this confusion by calling this ingredient what it is: corn sugar.

While this nomenclature is likely to call up imagery of some grandmotherly women in a kitchen, using a mortar and pestle to grind fresh grains of corn down into a syrup that they then dehydrate in the sun, the reality is that it takes 3 enzyme additions involving fungi, chemicals, and large vats, plus two additional refining steps in one of 16 chemical plants across the heartland to get the tanker full of clear syrup that the Corn Refiner’s Association would like the FDA to start calling “corn sugar.”

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled similarly by the body.

Again, it is true the the calorie count is the same. But “similarly” is not exactly. And those minuscule differences in how the body processes HFCS can have quite detrimental effects. In one study, rats were fed either exclusively HFCS ( in amounts much lower than those in soda) or sugar. The HFCS group gained significantly more weight, with every single HFCS rat becoming obese. While naturally occurring sugars and fruits contain fructose bound to other sugars, high fructose corn syrup contains a large amount of unbound fructose. Kind of like my Murphy’s Oil Soap analogy concerning the metabolites of aspartame — the body just can’t do good things with unbound fructose. It’s not the way nature carries its sugar, and not the way our bodies were meant to process it.

But it’s not just obesity. Consumption of fructose is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated triglycerides and LDL, and cardiovascular disease. We are a generation of adults that has been trained to lower cholesterol by avoiding animal fats and eggs, and by popping a staggering number of statins starting in our early 30s. But why isn’t our doctor telling us to avoid large amounts of fructose? Why is this so easily overlooked by the FDA as a likely cause for our decline of health in America?

Agave Nectar

This one is tough, because so many health-conscious people are using it — especially diabetics and those on low-carb diets. I purchased a bottle at Trader Joe’s last year, thinking it was a healthy way to sweeten my tea. But the more I read, the more concerned I became, and eventually threw out the rest of my bottle.

To boil it down, agave nectar is often produced very similarly to HFCS*. It is not a “nectar” at all (again, giving us the idea that native workers in South America are spending sun-drenched days squeezing the nectar out of agave leaves, giving us a pure and natural syrup like the maple syrup tapped from trees) but a sugar syrup derived from the starch of the agave or yucca root bulb. It goes through similar chemical and enzymatic processing as HFCS, only it ends up with upwards of 70% fructose (as opposed to the low-end 55% for HFCS).

This fact alone would cause me to avoid agave nectar for my family. There are some other concerns, including one that warns pregnant or nursing women to avoid it — the agave plant contains saponins which can stimulate excess bloodflow to the uterus. Even though the fructose of agave nectar doesn’t raise glucose levels (a reason most people us it), the high percentage of free fructose makes it, in my opinion, equally as questionable as HFCS.

In all of this controversy, the Corn Refiner’s folks have one thing right: we can’t consume huge amounts of any sugar and hope to be healthy. This goes for every kind of sweet thing, from an apple to raw honey to HFCS. But that doesn’t change the fact that these highly-refined sweeteners are a much greater evil on the scale of sweets — that they are not chemically the same. And since they are found in so many products, from ketchup to “whole-grain” breads, they are not only indicators of the fact that a food is highly-processed, but they are actually contributing more negatively to the body’s health, all in the name of making things sweeter, softer, and have a longer shelf life, and all for a much bigger profit to the producer.

Which is what it all comes down to: money. These refined sweeteners make it cheaper to make food products — and the products are therefore cheaper for the consumer, and sweet enough to keep the buyer coming back. But I stand by the notion that when it comes to food and our health, we will all pay at some point. I tend to think an investment in higher-quality whole foods on the front end will end up saving us a relative ton in future health care.

And with that final bit of opinion, I believe most every nook and cranny has been covered. Not sure exactly what to do with my apocalyptic soapbox now that I’ve maxed out my opinions on sugar — though I’m confident another use will present itself. In the meantime, though — anyone have a use for this megaphone and full-length body placard that reads, “Eat sugar and BURN” (includes hand-painted red flames!)?


*Some agave syrups are less refined than others — but it’s hard to tell which is which. And even in those that are less refined, the percentage of free fructose is around 70% — which is a hard sell to me, when I can reach for honey (about 38%) or pure maple syrup (about 1%) instead.


46 thoughts on “The scoop on sweets, part four: the final chapter, finally.

  1. Thanks for finishing out the series, Katy! I say as I sip a cup of tea liberally sweetened with turbinado sugar. When did I let myself slide from using honey?? I went back and gave your other articles a re-read. You’ve inspired me to get back on the ball using healthier – and fewer – sweeteners.

  2. hey katy! i’ve been reading all your sugar posts lately–so great! so bummed about agave….i hadn’t even ever used it until lately (i actually was trying to do a cleanse cutting out sugar, gluten, etc. stuff—so she has you use agave for sweetening—but now after what i’ve read it sounds i’d be better off with honey?? so what do you sweeten with??
    sorry i missed getting to see you all when you were here–maybe next time!

    1. Erica, I hope to see you on our next visit, definitely!
      I tend to use local, raw honey for granola, yogurt, tea, etc. And then for much baking we use rapadura (sucanat) or regular table sugar. It’s surprising that a cleanse would recommend agave instead of sugar — even though the glucose is low, and therefore doesn’t cause your blood sugar to spike as readily, the fructose is still a hyper-intense sweetener. Very interesting, and I wonder what the thought is behind it…

  3. I’m on the no HFCS train. Have been for awhile. But the whole sugar/sweetener thing is harder for me. I’m not a baker – I stick to the simplest recipes. So help me figure out how I take plain old white sugar out of a chocolate chip cookie recipe (hubby’s fave). I don’t have a clue where to start…

    1. Well, that one is tough, because I still use white sugar in some baking. Honestly though — baking your own cookies is half the battle — b/c then they don’t have all the other additives and preservatives of store-bought. You can’t eat a batch of (even home-made) cookies every day and be healthy — but if you’re using white sugar instead of HFCS or something artificial, you’re still better off.

      You could try rapadura or sucanat (I talk about those in the 3rd post of this series) — I would try that for 1/2 the total sugar in the recipe. If it works, you could try to sub more. You can get this sugar in bulk at Good Earth, or in (expensive) bags at Whole Foods (or maybe the health-food section of Marsh or Kroger).

  4. Jennifer, Jenn, and Rebecca — thanks! It did take me a ridiculously long time to finish out — glad it finally wrapped up, and I can move on to some other topic of fire and brimstone.

  5. Have you seen all those commercials where people say they “looked up” information on HFCS and found its just like sugar to our bodies? So no big deal! Man, the industry is getting desperate.

  6. Hey there! I’d love to respond to your blog post about HFCS.

    HFCS is metabolically similar to sucrose. Along with the CRA, many other organizations state this fact as well including the American Dietetic Association and the American Medical Association.

    The production methods are also similar to sucrose (i.e. sugar). The most common variations of HFCS used are HFCS 42 (42% fructose and 58% glucose), which is less sweet than sugar, and HFCS 55 (55% fructose and 45% glucose) not the staggering 90% fructose as you mention.

    As for your comments pertaining to enzymes, enzymes are used in many foods and are routinely used in the production process. For example, enzymes are used to treat fermented grapes (wine), chemically treated beet starch, enzyme treated milk curds (cheese), invert sugar, agave nectar, meats, yogurt, bread, beer, and candies.  Here is a link to the “Association of Manufacturers and Formulators of Enzyme Products.” where they discuss enzymes and also provide a link with a listing of industrial applications of enzymes. 

    The last point I’d like to address is about how the body processes HFCS. The American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health reviewed the science on high fructose corn syrup noting, “Even if sucrose is not hydrolyzed before consumption, the covalent bond between the fructose and glucose molecules in sucrose is easily cleaved by the enzyme sucrase in the brush-border cells of the small intestine. Thus, the body is absorbing free fructose and glucose molecules, regardless of whether they originated as part of HFCS or sucrose.” (Moeller SM, Fryhofer SA, Osbahr AJ 3rd, Robinowitz CB; Council on Science and Public Health, American Medical Association. 2009. The Effects of High Fructose Syrup. J Am Coll Nutr. 28(6):619-26. Once sucrose and HFCS are absorbed into the blood stream, they deliver the same sugars, at the same time, to the same tissues, within the same timeframe, and to the same metabolic pathways.

    -Chrissy Barth, RD, CFT, RYT, Consultant to the Corn Refiners Association

    1. I wish you’d touch upon the ill effects genetically modified corn has on our bodies and how all HFCS is derived from plants that have their dna spliced with antibiotics, not to mention the presence of BT in every cell of the plant?

      Not sure how you can sleep at night pushing the wonders of HFCS, it and genetically engineered corn are poisoning us.

    2. Hi, Chrissy,

      Thanks for stopping by — I had no idea you were a reader!

      So I’d love to respond to your response to my blog post about HFCS:

      I agree with the CRA, the ADA, and the AMA that HFCS is metabolically similar to sucrose. But close is no cigar — and it’s the difference that causes problems.

      How similar are the production methods of HFCS to sucrose (i.e., sugar)? Again, the word “similar” can cause great problems when it comes to body chemistry. While the most common variations of HFCS are 42% and 55% fructose, there are times when the staggering 90% fructose is used in certain applications (I’ll admit it’s frustratingly hard to find what, specifically, those “certain applications” might be).

      But even when the more common, lower-end fructose percentages are used, it is still “free” fructose. I agree that with table sugar, there is some free fructose being absorbed by the small intestine (again, to our detriment!). However, it seems that something does happen differently when the body processes table sugar and when it processes HFCS. It’s hard to argue with the Princeton study which tested this exact comparison (HFCS to sugar) and left us with obese HFCS rats.

      Enzymes are everywhere — even in our bodies (but thanks for pointing me to the association website that reinforces this fact). Besides the fact that at least one of the enzymes used to process HFCS is genetically-modified (not to mention the corn itself is also almost certainly genetically-modified), my primary problem with them is that, because there are three different enzyme processes that must be undergone before HFCS is the end-result — basically changing an original corn starch syrup product from virtually 100% glucose into a high percentage of fructose (see previous link) — all fingers point to an extremely highly-processed chemical product. As a rule, I avoid these in my kitchen (perhaps that enzyme website will reveal even more that I need to avoid?) I’d rather just use honey, where the enzymes come from bee saliva, and don’t need a chemical plant.

      Again, thanks for giving me and my readers the input of a CRA consultant. Please stop by again sometime — I have a killer tomato pie recipe!

  7. Don’t think I’ve told you but I am buying local honey now. I drink my coffee black but Ann uses it in her tea and some other stuff.

  8. Love this post (saw your link at Twitter) and am impressed with your research. Have you seen the movie King Corn? It’s very eye opening. The guys who make the documentary try see how HFCS is made & are allowed no entrance, so they decide to try to make HFCS in their kitchen, only to learn some disturbing facts about the process. Highly recommend the movie.

    Also? Chrissy’s comment that “HFCS is metabolically similar to sucrose” sounds suspiciously vague. Are the production methods “similar to sugar” if they share 1 step? Because I’m pretty sure the overall process is quite different, according to the movie King Corn. I’m going to go look up the AMA article she references…..

    I don’t use agave nectar, but wasn’t aware of the information you posted. Thanks again for sharing!

  9. Just read the AMA article Chrissy referenced and noticed some key things. It was published in 2009, and there is quite possibly newer research existing. It specifically states that it examined the metabolic process, but not specifically it’s effect on obesity & that more studies are necessary. It ends with this statement: “Dietary advice to limit consumption of all added caloric sweeteners, including HFCS, is warranted.”

    And a big AMEN to Denise’s response above, regarding GM corn.

    1. Yes, I agree with the GM corn aspect. Also, on the AMA article — basically, at the end of the day, they just determine that more research is needed. It doesn’t sound like a very convincing ruling to me ; )

    1. Cherie, the agave debate is still pretty evenly divided, as many health-food proponents like it. I really wanted to like it — but the percentage of fructose just makes me nervous ; )

      1. That makes good sense! The sticker shock was enough to make me drop it earlier last year. We’re pretty low sugar here but when we do consume sugar, it’s straight up sugar. Finding a BBQ sauce in a regular grocery store is close to impossible. And now I worry about “re-branding” and that they’ll start classifying ingredients as sugar when they’re really not. We watched King Corn not too long ago and the process of making HFCS was plain ick.

  10. Between “didnt know you were a reader” and “tomato pie,” I now want to carry you around in my pocket.

    Superb post again. I have such a hard time making my way through nutrition info but you explain it so clearly.

    I have much to think about.

  11. Ok, I’ll bite, and probably get chewed up in the process. What is the big hoopla over genetically altered corn? How can you say it is poisoning us? There is corn that has been genetically manipulated to be resistant to Round-Up, so that farmers can spray their crops to eliminate weeds without killing the crop. This does not make corn poisonous. This does not cause corn to accumulate glyphosate. Even if you could, if you check the msds, you would need to consume about 5,000mg for every 1kg of body weight to reach a lethal level.

    And before you post a rant back, do some research and tell me what corn is not genetically altered. If you want to argue against genetically altered corn, you are going to have to search for a variety with any kind of flavor. Sweet potatoes were way too stringy before some scientists at Mississippi State University found out how to “breed” that out of them to make them “edible.” That make them genetically altered.

    Now, I will sit down and take what’s coming. Go ahead, fire away.

    1. So, I think there is a difference b/t cross-pollination, or natural breeding processes, and genetic modification. So if the sweet potatoes were bred by naturally cross-pollinating different varieties (even if this happened in an MSU ag-sci lab) I’m ok with that. What I’m not really ok with is the injection of foreign proteins, pesticides, etc. into the molecular structure of a plant.

      I am definitely not a scientist(!). But I have read enough research calling into question the safety of this practice for me to want to avoid GMOs. They are unfortunately almost impossible to avoid now, and it’s only getting harder each year, as the industry lobby is extremely powerful.

      This study shows plenty of reason to be wary of GM corn. Even if the studies don’t end with the FDA banning it (I doubt this will ever happen) — they usually show enough evidence to warrant “further testing.” In the link above, the rats fed GMO corn were going through some pretty nasty stuff. Stuff I’d like to protect my family from, if at all possible.

      There’s also the fact that the very farming practices that cause us to need “roundup-ready” anything are avoidable, and detrimental to the environment. But these practices do conveniently line the pockets of Monsanto (they’ve cornered the market on both seeds and herbicide in this scenario — leaving farmers with almost no choice, even suing farmers who try to avoid the vicious cycle of using Monsanto seeds).

      Ok. Your turn ; )

  12. I just love the fact that there are people whose actual job it is to comb the internet looking for references to corn syrup and defending it!

    1. Oh, you GUYS! (go on… no really…)
      HFCS is no doubt a hot-button. Kinda one reason it took me until post #4 to get to it.
      I with I could tell you about oligofructose, but I’ve never heard of it! My quick google search didn’t tell me much, although one company I sort-of trust seems to be using it in a supplement, which would initially lead me to believe it’s safe. Where have you seen it?

      1. So we have these friends who sell Reliv. We haven’t purchased any of the stuff (mostly nutritional supplements), but they’ve encouraged Mike to try their answer to the energy drink phenomenon. It uses oligofructose and stevia as sweeteners.

  13. Fantastic post! I avoid all artificial sweeteners and HFCS. It makes me so angry to see the commercials by the corn industry lying to the public. It makes me want to scream. Thanks for putting all the information in an easily understood post. I’m sticking to maple syrup, honey, and evaporated cane juice!

  14. Once upon a time I read a study that found that HFCS had an effect on our appetites. Basically our hungry/full reflex is not triggered by HFCS in the same way that sugar affects us, so we can consume FAR more calories of HFCS than we can of sugar. It just made so much sense… why else do we have gallon-sized Big Gulps? We lived in Italy for several years, and the soda there is made with actual sugar; a small juice-sized glass is plenty to feel satisfied. I wish I could find the study now but every time I’ve searched I get bogged down in HFCS “studies” commissioned by the CRA or other nonsense and I get all fired up. 🙂

    My husband and I are very anti-HFCS, and I try to make as much of our food as possible at home so I know what’s in it–and not! Great article, thanks so much!

  15. Incredible! I agree with the previous commenter who said that you break all of this down so well, rendering tricky/intentionally misleading information easy to understand (and saving me the time of having to research it in order to convince people I love. I could never do it as well as a quick reference to your site)! I wonder when Alton Brown will hear of you. You two could make an excellent team, as you’re both so witty and knowledgeable. Easily my favorite blog! Thank you!

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