Corn syrup and sugar are both sweeteners used in food production, but they have some key differences in terms of their sources, chemical structures, sweetness, and effects on health. Understanding the distinctions between these two common sweeteners can help consumers make informed choices about the foods they buy and eat.
What is corn syrup?
Corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. To make corn syrup, corn starch is broken down into glucose syrup through a process called acid hydrolysis. This involves adding acids or enzymes to a water and cornstarch solution to break the starch down into glucose.
There are different types of corn syrup:
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – HFCS goes through an additional process to convert some of the glucose into fructose. HFCS contains both glucose and fructose and is sweeter than regular corn syrup.
- Regular corn syrup – Also called glucose syrup, this is 100% glucose with no fructose content. It’s less sweet than HFCS.
- Dextrose – Pure glucose made from cornstarch, with no fructose. It has mild sweetness.
HFCS is the most widely used type of corn syrup as a sweetener in processed foods and beverages. Soft drinks, fruit juices, breads, cereals, yogurts, soups and other foods often contain HFCS as a sweetener. The most common forms of HFCS used are HFCS-42 (42% fructose) and HFCS-55 (55% fructose).
What is sugar?
Sugar refers to sucrose, which comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. Sucrose is a disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose bonded together. Table sugar (sucrose) comes from processing and refining sugar cane or sugar beets to extract the sucrose.
Other types of sugar include:
- Cane sugar – Sucrose derived from sugar cane
- Beet sugar – Sucrose derived from sugar beets
- Brown sugar – White sugar with added molasses to produce a brown color and caramel flavor
- Powdered sugar – Finely ground sucrose with cornstarch added to prevent caking
- Turbinado sugar – Less processed sugar with a brownish color and mild molasses flavor
- Demerara sugar – A type of turbinado sugar with large grains and crunchy texture
Sucrose or table sugar is the most common added sugar used in food production and at home. Sugar adds sweetness to baked goods, beverages, sauces, and many other foods.
One key difference between corn syrup and sugar is their plant source:
- Corn syrup is made from cornstarch derived from corn kernels.
- Sugar (sucrose) comes from sugar beets and sugar cane plants.
Corn and sugar crops are grown in large quantities worldwide to meet the high demand for these popular sweeteners.
Corn syrup and sucrose also have differences in their chemical structures:
- Corn syrup contains either just glucose, or glucose plus fructose molecules.
- Sucrose is a disaccharide made of a glucose and fructose molecule bonded together.
When sucrose is broken down during digestion or food production, it splits into free glucose and fructose. So while sucrose, glucose and fructose all provide sweetness, their molecular structures vary.
The sweetness of corn syrup and sugar depends on the specific type:
|High fructose corn syrup (55% fructose)
|1.3 – 1.8 times sweeter than sucrose
|Table sugar (sucrose)
|1.0 times as sweet as sucrose
|Corn syrup/glucose syrup
|0.5 – 0.7 times as sweet as sucrose
|1.2 – 1.8 times sweeter than sucrose
|0.7 – 0.8 times as sweet as sucrose
*Measured relative to sucrose, on a weight basis
As this table displays, fructose is the sweetest sugar, followed by HFCS and sucrose. Plain corn syrup without fructose is less sweet than sucrose. The exact sweetness depends on the specific glucose to fructose ratio.
The different chemical structures of corn syrup and sucrose impact their taste beyond just sweetness intensity. Here is how they compare:
- Corn syrup tends to have a thinner, less viscous texture. It also lacks the subtle caramel undertones that can be present in some types of cane sugar.
- Sugar (sucrose) has a fuller mouthfeel and depth of sweetness. Brown sugars and raw sugars have deeper, more complex caramel, butterscotch, or molasses flavors.
The glucose-fructose mix of HFCS is perceived as sweeter and less complex than pure sucrose. Corn syrup has milder sweetness with simpler flavor profile compared to sucrose.
Glycemic index differences
The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels. Pure fructose has the lowest GI, while glucose has a high GI. Here are the glycemic indexes of these sweeteners:
|High fructose corn syrup
Fructose has a very low GI, meaning it does not spike blood sugar levels much. Glucose has a high GI. Sucrose and HFCS have moderate glycemic indexes.
Effects on health
There are some differences between how sugar and corn syrup impact health:
- Added sugars like sucrose and HFCS provide empty calories and increase risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease when consumed in excess.
- Fructose may be linked to increased visceral fat, high triglycerides and insulin resistance.
- Glucose ingestion triggers insulin release more than fructose.
- Sucrose contains equal parts glucose and fructose.
- HFCS has more fructose than glucose, though glucose is still present.
Overall, both table sugar and HFCS can negatively impact health when eaten in high amounts. But the higher fructose content of HFCS may cause slightly more metabolic changes than sucrose when weight gain occurs.
What do experts say about corn syrup vs. sugar?
Scientific and health organizations have looked closely at whether cane sugar and HFCS have significantly different effects on appetite, weight and other health parameters. Here are some conclusions:
- The American Medical Association stated that HFCS and sucrose are metabolized similarly in the body when consumed at equal calorie levels. They do not differ greatly in their metabolic effects.
- A study in obese children found that HFCS and sucrose had identical effects on feelings of hunger and fullness when consumed as part of a calorie-matched breakfast.
- The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that HFCS and sucrose seem to influence appetite, weight gain and other health factors similarly based on current evidence.
Though their structures vary, most experts agree that table sugar and corn syrup are comparable in their health impacts. The key is to limit intake of all added sugars, regardless of source.
Is one more processed than the other?
Both table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup are considered processed sweeteners:
- Table sugar goes through multiple steps of processing from the sugar cane or beet plant, including clarifying, evaporation, crystallization and drying.
- HFCS requires enzymatic processing of cornstarch to produce the glucose-fructose syrup.
Compared to less refined sweeteners like honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar, both table sugar and HFCS undergo significant industrial processing.
One reason why food manufacturers often use corn syrup instead of cane or beet sugar is cost savings. The prices per pound are:
- Corn syrup costs $0.20-$0.40/lb
- Sugar costs $0.25-$0.35/lb
HFCS is cheaper than granulated cane sugar. Higher sugar tariffs also make sucrose more expensive in the U.S. So substituting corn syrup reduces costs for food companies.
Is HFCS banned anywhere?
High fructose corn syrup has come under scrutiny in recent years by consumers trying to avoid highly processed ingredients. But HFCS has not been officially banned anywhere at this time. Some other key considerations:
- In 1984, HFCS began widely replacing sucrose as a sweetener in U.S. food manufacturing. But sucrose is still used as well.
- Some countries, like Mexico, use much less HFCS due to tariffs that favor cane sugar production and imports.
- In the early 2000s, Merisant company launched a “made with no high fructose corn syrup” marketing campaign. This further turned consumer opinion against HFCS.
- While no location has fully banned HFCS, its reputation has declined with consumers. Food companies have responded by using it less in certain products.
Is corn syrup gluten-free?
Yes, corn syrup is gluten-free. It contains no wheat, barley, rye or other gluten-containing ingredients. People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can consume corn syrup without risk of gluten exposure.
Be aware that some flavors or other additives mixed into corn syrup formulas could potentially contain gluten. So check the labels of flavored corn syrup products.
Which is considered worse for health?
Currently, table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are considered comparable in their health impacts by experts like the AMA and Academy of Nutrition:
- Too much added sugar from any source can promote obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But moderate intake is fine for most people.
- The slightly higher fructose content of HFCS may have subtle metabolic impacts. However, table sugar and HFCS are largely equivalent in health risks.
- The FDA does not distinguish between added sugars in terms of daily recommended limits or nutrition facts labels.
- For optimal health, the recommendation is to limit all added sweeteners including both sucrose and HFCS.
Are natural sweeteners necessarily healthier?
Sometimes alternative sweeteners like honey, agave, maple syrup or coconut sugar are touted as healthier than white table sugar or corn syrup. But this isn’t necessarily true:
- These less processed natural sweeteners contain nutrients like minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
- But they are still high in sugars like glucose, fructose and sucrose.
- Your body can’t differentiate between fructose from an apple or fructose from agave syrup – the impact is the same.
- Most natural sweeteners have slightly lower glycemic indexes than table sugar, but they will still elevate blood glucose.
While natural sweeteners do contain small amounts of vitamins and antioxidants, they do not provide complete nutrition. Overuse of any added sugars, even natural ones, should be limited in the diet.
Takeaway on corn syrup vs. sugar
High fructose corn syrup and table sugar (sucrose) have some clear differences in terms of their sources, structure, processing methods, sweetness and cost. But according to major health organizations, they have very similar effects on appetite, weight, blood sugar and other health parameters.
The key when choosing sweeteners is to limit intake of all added sugars, regardless of whether they are sucrose, HFCS or a natural sweetener. Use all sweeteners in moderation as part of a diet focused on whole, nutritious foods. With awareness and balance, sweeteners like corn syrup and sugar can fit into a healthy lifestyle.