By definition, simple carbohydrates contain one or two sugar units. They naturally occur in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Sucrose, for instance, abounds in sugar beets and sugar cane. Table sugar results from the industrial processing of sugar beets or sugar cane. In contrast, high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, comes from highly processed corn and is a liquid sweetener. HFCS and cane sugar are both simple carbs but slightly differ in their structure.
Cane sugar has centuries' worth of history in the human diet. It comes from evaporated sugar cane juice and can yield different forms of sugar depending on processing methods. Raw sugar crystals and turbinado, for instance, are unrefined cane sugars. In contrast, confectioner’s sugar and brown sugar are refined products that are whitened and browned with molasses syrup, respectively. Cane sugar has a granular structure and you need to dissolve it in water before use. Also, it easily breaks down in acidic environments, which can affect texture and sweetness when it is used in food preparation.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
The creation of HFCS dates back to the1960s. Manufactured from corn, it's a liquid caloric sweetener that has increasingly made its way into foods and beverages in the last 50 years. Its stability in acidic environments, flavor, pourability and greater ability to blend with other ingredients have made it a preferred sweetener for liquid foods and drinks. Many soft drinks and processed foods contain added HCFS, as well as some canned goods and dairy products. HFCS is a syrup that you can simply dilute before consumption.
Glucose and fructose are both monosaccharides, the simplest form of sugar. In high-fructose corn syrup, glucose and fructose occur in their free form, while they're bound to each other in cane sugar. Your body must first break cane sugar down in your small intestine before it can absorb it, while HFCS requires no digestion and directly enters your bloodstream. Also, cane sugar, or sucrose, contains equal amounts of glucose and fructose. In contrast, although the specific composition of HCFS depends on manufacturing, researchers at the Princeton University estimate that the typical HFCS consists of 55 percent of fructose, 42 percent of glucose and 3 percent larger sugar molecules.
Each gram of sugar ultimately yields 4 calories, whether you eat cane sugar or fructose. However, it's important to note that, while all your cells are equipped to pick up glucose and immediately use it as fuel, few organs have the necessary machinery to convert fructose into a form they can use for energy. Biochemist Pamela Champe, Ph.D., remarks that fructose processing primarily takes place in the liver. Excessive dietary fructose intake from HCFS or cane sugar can therefore make your liver work overtime. What's more, a major product of fructose processing is glycerol, a building block of blood fats.
The health effects of HCFS have been the subject of scientific debate over the past decade. In a 2008 edition of the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," health consultant John White argued against the idea that high HCFS consumption promotes obesity. However, in 2010, Princeton researchers reported that the addition of HCFS to a normal diet markedly increased obesity rates in animal studies, while equivalent amounts of sucrose did not. What's more, they noted that long-term consumption of HCFS increases belly fat and circulating blood fats in ways that mimic the human risk factors for high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Cane sugar and HCFS essentially provide calories with little to no additional nutrition. Consuming too much of either one can lead to weight gain, since your body ultimately stores excess carbs as fat. This is especially true if you're physically inactive. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you should limit added sugars in your diet and make water your drink of choice. Fruits and vegetables are better carbohydrate sources than refined grains and sugars because they provide a wide range of essential nutrients.
- Princeton University: A Sweet Problem - Princeton Researchers Find that High-Fructose Corn Syrup Prompts Ponsiderably More Weight Gain
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Straight Talk About High-Fructose Corn Syrup - What It Is and What It Isn’t
- The New York Times: Sweeteners – Sugars
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition: The Effects of High Fructose Syrup
- Lippincott's Illustrated Reviews: Biochemistry (3rd Edition); Pamela C. Champe. Ph.D.
Suzanne Fantar has been writing online since 2009 as an outlet for her passion for fitness, nutrition and health. She enjoys researching and writing about health, but also takes interest in family issues, poetry, music, Christ, nature and learning. She holds a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Goucher College and a MBA in healthcare management from the University of Baltimore.