Skip to main content

Corn syrup has been cast as a health food villain lately. Consumers' attitudes toward the product has deteriorated so much that the American Corn Refiners Association petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year to allow manufacturers to call it "corn sugar."

Meanwhile, food and beverage giants have been ditching high fructose corn syrup in favour of sugar. You may have seen, for instance, Pepsi's latest retro "Made with Real Sugar" marketing campaign, which boasts its return to its classic, 1970s sugar-laden recipe.

But is sugar actually a healthier alternative to corn syrup? Mother Jones consulted nutrition experts and discovered the answer is, simply, no.

As the news organization notes, the use of corn syrup took off during the 1970s when sugar was the one getting the bad reputation for its links to tooth decay and diabetes.

But according to Mother Jones, the two sweeteners are, in fact, pretty much nutritionally identical. The biggest difference between the two is their molecular structure. In molecules of table sugar, fructose and glucose units, which occur in a 50/50 ratio, are joined together, while in corn syrup, in which they occur in a 55/45 ratio, they are detached.

"But since the small intestine promptly breaks that bond, it doesn't matter," Mother Jones's Kiera Butler writes.

The trouble with fructose is that the body delivers it to the liver, where it can lead to a buildup of fats and contribute to diabetes, heart disease and other health issues. But as Ms. Butler writes, the problem isn't whether we're getting our fructose from sugar or corn syrup; it's that we're simply consuming too much of it.

Before 1900, she says, about four per cent of the calories Americans consumed came from fructose. In Canada today, it's estimated that we consume 13 per cent of our daily calories from added sugars, including table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

The final word? "In high-enough quantities, they're both poison," pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig of the University of California San Francisco tells Ms. Butler.