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Nutrition Column

Fructose versus high-fructose corn syrup

You might be thinking, isn't fructose found mostly in fruit? Yes, fructose is the primary sugar in fruit - and hence the name "fruit sugar".

Isn't fruit healthy for you? Once again, correct. Fruit is high in carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, water, fiber, and other phytochemicals (phyto = plant).

Doesn't fruit have a low glycemic index due to its fructose content - resulting in a slow rise in blood glucose and little elevation in blood insulin? Once again correct.

Does fruit have any down side? In a small segment of the population fructose is converted preferentially into triglycerides, in the liver, which leads to elevated blood triglyceride levels.

For non-hypertriglyceridemics (those with low rather than high blood triglyceride levels), fruit is an extremely healthy food. Fructose is a "healthy" sugar, which aids in the maintenance of liver glycogen and blood glucose levels - helping to ward off hypoglycemia, hunger, and fatigue.

So what about high-fructose corn syrup? Is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) healthy too since it contains the same sugar as fruit? Unfortunately, no.

While the sugar is the same, albeit in a slightly different ratio, HFCS lacks all the other nutrients found in fruit. In addition, foods to which HFCS has been added are typically dense in calories and less dense in essential nutrients. This combination, high in calories, low in nutrients often leads to greater calorie consumption and to weight gain.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is regular corn syrup that has been enzymatically changed to convert the glucose into fructose - primarily since fructose is sweeter than glucose - about 1 1/2 times sweeter.

Besides its sweetness, manufacturers like to use HFCS because it is very inexpensive. In the United States the corn industry is subsidized and therefore corn is cheap as well as HFCS.

There are two main types of HFCS depending on the ratio of fructose to glucose. The HFCS typically used in baked goods is 42 percent fructose while 55 percent HFCS is most often used to sweeten soft drinks.

Research supports the finding that fructose in such high concentrations is linked to elevations in blood lipid levels. In addition, compared to glucose, in large amounts, fructose is thought to be more easily converted into fat leading to body weight and fat gains.

In truth, it might not be the HFCS itself which is unhealthy, rather the lack of nutrients found in many of the products which use HFCS as their main sweetener. Moderation is certainly a wise choice when selecting foods which have HFCS in them.

Other more nutrient dense, and high-fiber food, will not only provide healthier options, but also fewer calories and likely less chance of weight gain. So next time your craving something sweet - opt for fruit over a HFCS sweetened item.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 3.18.06