Food Fight: High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Sugar

High Fructose Corn Syrup has been used for decades as an inexpensive alternative to cane and beet sugars in sweetened food products. Recently, many food manufacturers have begun to again use sucrose to sweeten their products. This month, Food Manufacturing asks: What are the benefits of each sweetener?

A few years ago, as the news came that a few products were shifting their recipes to include all-natural sugar (sucrose), we were curious and cautiously optimistic about what this meant for sugar. What we initially identified as an emerging trend now looks a lot more like a national movement towards all-natural ingredients.

Consumers have been vocal that they want all-natural ingredients in their foods and beverages, especially when it involves their children. Hunt's ketchup, Pepsi Throwback, Snapple, Gatorade, Ocean Spray, Sara Lee and Wheat Thins are just a few of the household names that are now using sugar in their recipes as a result. More of America’s brands, like Dr Pepper and Heinz ketchup, are even announcing limited time offerings of sugar-sweetened products. And the manufacturers offering these products have reaped benefits in the form of more satisfied customers.

Soft drinks in Mexico and most of Europe have always been sweetened with all-natural sugar. As the market for “bootleg Coke” (Coca-Cola from Mexico, sweetened with sugar) has grown in the United States, manufacturers are placing more orders for sugar. In 2006, 228,000 short tons were delivered for use in beverages. By 2009, that number had increased steadily to 351,000 short tons delivered. That’s a more than 50 percent increase in three years, substantial for any commodity.

But, why? Maria Caranfa, an analyst at foodservice research company Mintel International Group, attributes the increase to pressure from consumers. She said, “Consumers are driving this trend, and restaurants" adding natural products are taking their consumers seriously and building more trust in their brand.”

She’s right. Starbucks, one of the nation’s biggest restaurant chains, summed up its decision to use sugar in its food products, “We heard loud and clear from our customers that they want food, when they purchase food at Starbucks, to be made of high quality ingredients and from simple recipes.”

What Starbucks heard from its customers and what industry experts like Caranfa identified was further confirmed in a February Harris Interactive poll of American parents. Eighty-seven percent of parents said that the type of sweetener used in a product is at least somewhat important to them when making food decisions for their kids. More than 64 percent of parents prefer sugar-sweetened beverages for their children.

We’re not surprised that when consumers, especially parents, are given all the facts they choose all-natural sugar. As consumers continue to want to know more about the ingredients in their food, they can look at a label and recognize sugar and its natural properties and feel good about the selection.


Audrae Erickson, President, Corn Refiners Association

There is little practical difference between sugar made from cane or beets and high fructose corn syrup, which is just sugar made from corn. These two sweeteners are fraternal twins. The nation’s leading health and nutrition experts agree that they contain almost equal parts of the two simple sugars — fructose and glucose — and are handled the same by the body and that they have the same number of calories and the same level of sweetness. Put simply: sugar is sugar whether it comes from corn or cane.

Today, consumers are justifiably confused about high fructose corn syrup. They are reading news accounts and blogs about how some food and beverage manufacturing companies are switching out this highly functional ingredient for sugar. And they are left with the very wrong and highly inaccurate impression that something is amiss with this ingredient that has been integral to food and beverage flavor and freshness for decades.

Despite marketing claims to the contrary, the reality is that sugar is not a “better” ingredient for anyone’s health or diet. And American consumers aren’t buying these marketing claims. Nor are some of the top nutrition gurus.

Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said: “To pretend that a product sweetened with sugar is healthier than a product sweetened by high fructose corn syrup is totally misguided.”

David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program, at nationally renowned Children’s Hospital in Boston, and associate professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, said it well. “The decision to switch from HFCS to cane sugar is 100 percent marketing and zero percent science,” he said.

Companies are switching in hopes of capitalizing on promises of “new and improved,” even though no real change has been made to the product by removing one sugar and inserting another. Yet Nielsen data shows that despite the switch, many companies have failed to improve their bottom lines. That’s because the number of American shoppers with high fructose corn syrup on their minds when they head to the grocery store is in the very low single digits. Grocery store sales receipts confirm that companies that have switched out fail to gain market share. Yet their input costs rise since sugar is significantly more expensive than the highly versatile sweetener made from corn.

Here are the facts:

  • High fructose corn syrup has the same calories as sugar according to the American Dietetic Association. The ADA also found that high fructose corn syrup is indistinguishable to the human body from sugar.
  • The American Medical Association noted that it is similar in composition to sugar.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed it is safe and meets the criteria for the definition of natural.
    Input prices demonstrate that high fructose corn syrup
    remains the most economical caloric sweetener on the market.
  • Consumers are a loyal bunch. When given the facts, they will continue to purchase food and beverages with high fructose corn syrup. And, in moderation, there is no reason they shouldn’t.