Like many parents, Tacoma mom Donna Hinkley has lots of concerns about nutrition. But lately, she's been zeroing in on one. "High fructose corn syrup is the one ingredient I look for on food labels," Hinkley says. "I check to see if it is one of the top five ingredients. It's shocking to find out how many times it is the first ingredient."
Is HFCS bad for your child's health?
Today, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) sweetens more foods than plain sugar. In 2004, Dr. George Bray and Dr. Barry Popkin of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University proposed the theory that HFCS might play a role in our country's "epidemic of obesity." They reasoned that the rapid rise in obesity has been mirrored by a notable increase in the use of HFCS in processed foods. But to date, no human study has shown that HFCS's impact on health is any different than that of plain sugar.
In fact, even scientists who are on the front lines of exposing the dangers of processed foods and food ingredients aren't too worried about HFCS. Dr. Michael Jacobson is on the board of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), a nonprofit group dedicated to truthful food labeling and a key player in educating consumers about unhealthy fast foods and deceptive food ads. Recently, CSPI led the effort to get the FDA to require trans fat labeling on all foods. But in the case of sweeteners, Jacobson doesn't see a reason to single out HFCS. "There is no evidence at all that high fructose corn syrup is any worse, or better, than regular sugar," he says.
Fructose versus high fructose
What may have clouded the story on HFCS is the science implicating fructose as a potential health concern. In animal models, heavy fructose consumption leads to insulin resistance, elevated blood lipids and high blood pressure. In humans, however, insulin resistance and high blood pressure have not been seen. And, contrary to common perception, HFCS is not higher in fructose than sugar. Both are about half glucose and half fructose. "High fructose" is part of the name simply to distinguish it from regular corn syrup, which has little or no fructose.
Still, if you want your children to eat healthy and naturally, avoiding foods high in HFCS is good advice, because, like plain sugar, HFCS is 100 percent refined sugar with no nutrient value other than calories. As Jacobson says of HFCS and plain sugar, "Americans are consuming far too much of both."
Why is HFCS so common?
HFCS is derived from corn and is as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). It's easier to use than sugar in many processed foods and, according to the Corn Refiners Association, "HFCS makes foods such as bread and breakfast cereal 'brown' better when baked, and gives chewy cookies and snack bars their soft texture. It also protects freshness." But more than any other reason, the use of HFCS has skyrocketed in the past three decades because it is cheaper than sugar.
Take a look next time you're at the supermarket. You'll find HFCS in soft drinks, sweetened juice drinks, sports drinks, cookies, canned fruits and vegetables, jelly and jam, condiments, flavored milks, yogurt, ice cream, frozen desserts, breakfast cereals, hotdogs, ham, bread, crackers, pancake syrups, salad dressings, sauces, and more. The amount of HFCS varies greatly, from 40 grams or more in a can of soda to fewer than 4 grams in a slice of bread.
The problem with cost
HFCS use in foods has risen so dramatically in the last two decades that finding foods without HFCS is no small task. "I have to hunt through the supermarket to find foods that don't contain it," says Hinkley. "Sometimes it's such a hassle that I just give up and get whatever is on sale," a practice that may backfire on those trying to reduce the use of foods with HFCS.
Because HFCS is a cheap sweetener, foods free of HFCS are often more expensive than similar items that contain HFCS. For example, Smucker's Simply Fruit, which contains fruit syrup as a sweetener and no HFCS, is more expensive than Smucker's Jam (containing whole fruit and HFCS) and even more costly than Smucker's Jelly (with no whole fruit, only fruit juice and HFCS).
Considering what is known about HFCS today, there is no need to throw out boxes and cans of food each time you discover HFCS on the label. But reducing extra sugar in your child's diet, whether from HFCS or other sweeteners, is a good idea. Not only will you make room for higher-quality whole foods, but your child will depend less on extreme sweetness to enjoy foods.
Kati Chevaux is a nutritionist and freelance writer who lives in Seattle with her husband and two young sons. She is also the preschool nutrition writer for PreschoolRock.com.
Tips for reducing HFCS and other extra sugars in your child's diet
Reducing extra sugar in your child's diet, whether from HFCS or other sweeteners, is a good idea. Not only will you make room for more nutrient-dense foods, but your child will depend less on extreme levels of sweetness to enjoy foods.
1. Know the sweeteners
Look on the food label ingredient list for common sweeteners: sugar, fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, beet sugar, fruit juice concentrate, cane molasses, sugar beet syrup, sugar beet molasses, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, agave syrup, palm sugar, honey.
2. Visualize the sugar in food
Compare the grams in one serving of a food to the grams of sugar in that serving. You'll see what percentage of the product comes from sugar.
3. Choose whole foods over processed foods
Offering whole, nutrient-dense foods in their natural form is a great way to help children develop healthy eating habits and an appreciation for real food. Take steps to reduce your family's use of highly processed packaged foods.
4. Get rid of the heavy hitters
Some popular kids' foods are little more than sugar and calories. Restrict the everyday consumption of soft drinks, fruit punch, sports drinks, sugary candy and fruit-flavored snacks.
5. Re-evaluate the need for sweet treats
Ask yourself if your child needs the high level of sweetness in processed foods. For example, the fruit-flavored yogurt in grocery stores is sweetened with lots of extra sugar. As a substitute, try serving plain, unsweetened, low-fat yogurt and add a teaspoon of honey or pieces of fruit.
6. Know the sugar limit
The World Health Organization recommends that added sugars make up less than 10 percent of calories. For 6- to 10-year-olds, 1,600-1,800 calories per day typically meets daily energy needs and would allow for about 40-45 grams of added sugar per day. One can of soda is roughly that amount.