If you’ve ever flipped over packaged food and checked for high fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list, there’s something you should know: “Experts… say that when it comes to calories and nutrition, sugar is sugar is sugar,” says Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. “And it even gets worse, because they’ll throw in fruit juice, as well."
That’s right: While evaporated cane juice may sound like a more healthful alternative to high fructose corn syrup, it’s not. “Basically, it’s that neither is worse for you than the other,” he explains. “That’s the way nutritionists would look at it.”
The reason high fructose corn syrup has become notorious in recent years could be a result of competing forces from sugar lobbies, as well as a stroke of bad luck in marketing
“[There] has been this behind-the-scenes battle between table sugar... from cane and beets, versus high fructose corn syrup from corn,” Moss says. “You can almost feel sorry for [the corn industry] because they’re the ones who came up with the words ‘high fructose corn syrup’ way back when it started to get popular.” In reality, the amount of fructose in the corn product is about the same as in table sugar.
The topic is notoriously sticky, though, and it's often hard to distinguish good science from bad. That's in part because various lobbies have reportedly funded various scientists and groups arguing for their products or against competing products.
To complicate matters, food nutrition labels do not include a recommended daily amount of sugar. “The reason for that? Lobbying by the industry,” Moss says, “and the really startling fact is that most of us are getting way more sugar than health advocates urge us to be eating."
In his book, he notes that many foods that traditionally did not require added sugar have been engineered to include it. That’s because food scientists discovered a “bliss point,” or an optimum amount of sweetness that appeals to the average palate. In order to achieve that bliss point, packaged foods like bread and tomato sauce now sometimes include surprising amounts of sugar. Some flavored yogurts even have as much sugar in them as ice cream, Moss says. (Nutrition labels currently don’t distinguish between added and natural sugar, but that’s set to change soon.)
“The American Heart Association says look, we’re eating on average 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day per person,” Moss says. “We should be getting as little as six teaspoons, depending on your gender and your age and you can work forward from that.” Eating too much sugar on a regular basis could lead to fatal heart disease.
Health concerns aside, though, there are plenty of other issues to consider when it comes to high fructose corn syrup.
“You can look at high fructose corn syrup from other vantage points,” says Moss. “You can ask the question: Do we really want American agriculture devoting so many acres — almost a hundred million acres — to growing field-type corn that goes to ethanol and also high fructose corn syrup?”