Is Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad for You?

sugarHumans are naturally drawn to sweet tastes.  Some think that’s because anything that tastes sweet is rarely poisonous so we’re “hard wired” to like it.

Yes, we’ve been eating sweet things for ages.  But the sugar we’re most familiar with wasn’t that popular until the 18th Century. Before then, honey was the preferred sweetener.  Sugar or beet cane was largely ignored until Columbus’ day.  Used to make what we know as table sugar (also known as sucrose) it was difficult to process. But over time, processing cane became easier and sugar farming and trade became a huge industry.

The U.S. imported much of its sugar as it was difficult to grow here.   Then, in the late 1970’s, high import taxes were placed on sugar, so manufacturers looked for a way to cheaply simulate the sweetness of sugar.  Corn syrup, made from corn starch, was an early substitute.

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But since corn syrup’s primary sugar is glucose, it lacked the sweetness of table sugar which is a combination of both  glucose and fructose. They needed to find a way to convert some of the glucose in corn syrup to fructose to give it the same taste.  After much trial and error, they succeeded and called it high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Both sugar and HFCS have been in the news a lot lately.  Studies have linked them to all sorts of diseases.  But if sugars have been around for centuries why is there such a problem now?

Thanks to the discovery of HFCS, food manufacturers started adding more sweeteners to their processed goods.  Sugar consumption in the US more than tripled as a result.  Many people have been eager to make HFCS the villain in the “sugar wars” – specifically the fructose in HFCS since the body can’t metabolize as well as glucose.  But both table sugar and HFCS have about the same amounts of each.  So do honey, molasses, agave and a host of other “natural” sweeteners.

Some say it’s the process used to convert the glucose in corn syrup to fructose.  That may be true, but to date,   about the only thing that can be linked to fructose are higher triglyceride levels.  What they don’t tell you, though, is that you’d have to eat A LOT of fructose to raise those levels.

What you can link is weight gain to the introduction of sugar in processed foods.  By eating 3 times as much sugar as we did a few decades before it was so commonly added to foods, we’re eating an extra 200-300 calories a week.  That translates to 3 – 5 lbs gained each year.

The real problem is us – and our “taste” for sweetness.  In the old days, sugar was considered a treat and eaten sparingly.  Now it’s all over the place –in sodas and processed foods that were never around in the old days.  In fact, there’s some evidence that we can become addicted to sugar since every time we eat something sweet, “happy” chemicals are produced in the brain.

Once again, we’re back to the same advice.  Eat fewer processed foods, drink less soda and eat more fresh or frozen natural foods.  Consider sweets a gift from nature to savor and enjoy as an occasional treat.

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by on January 30th, 2014