What are the pros and cons of using high fructose corn syrup?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn starch that has been used in food production since the 1970s. It is composed of fructose and glucose and can be found in many processed foods and beverages, such as breads, cereals, crackers, yogurt, condiments, and soft drinks.

HFCS is appealing to food manufacturers because it is inexpensive, easy to transport, and mixes well with many foods. However, there has been considerable debate in recent years over the health effects of HFCS consumption. Critics argue that the sweetener contributes to obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes, while supporters claim it is no different than other added sugars.

This article examines the key pros and cons to using HFCS in food production and consumption. The goal is to objectively analyze the evidence on both sides of the debate so consumers can make informed choices about limiting or avoiding HFCS.

Pros of High Fructose Corn Syrup

There are several potential advantages to using HFCS as an ingredient in processed foods and beverages:

Low cost

One of the main reasons food manufacturers use HFCS is cost. High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, which is a crop that is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. This makes corn starch, and in turn HFCS, very inexpensive compared to other sweeteners like sugar. HFCS is estimated to be 20-50% cheaper than sucrose (regular table sugar).[1] The low cost gets passed on to consumers in the form of cheaper processed food products.

Long shelf life

Foods sweetened with HFCS tend to have an extended shelf life compared to those using other sweeteners. HFCS does not crystallize as easily as sugar during storage. This makes it appealing for use in baked goods, canned foods, cereals, and beverages that are intended to have a long shelf life.[2] The stability of HFCS allows food manufacturers to ship and store products for longer without compromising quality.

Versatile functionality

HFCS has properties that make it versatile to use in food production. It dissolves easily, so it can be added to liquid products like sodas. It retains moisture well, so baked goods made with HFCS tend to stay soft and moist for longer. Manufacturers also have the option of using different ratios of fructose to glucose in HFCS depending on the level of sweetness needed for a particular product.[3] This flexibility and functionality of HFCS benefits food producers.

Enhances flavor

Some studies have suggested HFCS has a positive effect on the taste and palatability of foods. Participants rated cookies and yogurt sweeter when made with HFCS compared to sugar. This flavor enhancement means manufacturers may be able to use less total sweetener when they choose HFCS.[4] Using less sweetener would further reduce costs.

Cons of High Fructose Corn Syrup

However, there are also potential health and environmental risks to consider regarding the use of HFCS:

Linked to obesity and disease

HFCS consumption has risen substantially since the 1970s, mirroring the dramatic rise in obesity levels. Some argue this is no coincidence. High fructose corn syrup is made up of free fructose at levels higher than what occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. Research indicates our livers have difficulty properly metabolizing unbound fructose, which can trigger fat production and insulin resistance.[5] This metabolic dysfunction could theoretically contribute to obesity as well as diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease over time.

However, other experts argue HFCS and sucrose have essentially identical compositions of fructose and glucose. Our bodies metabolize HFCS and sugar in very similar ways, so HFCS may be no more harmful than regular table sugar.[6] Still, the rise in HFCS consumption along with the obesity epidemic is concerning and more research is needed.

Linked to cancer

Early research indicates there could be a link between very high fructose intake and certain cancers like pancreatic cancer. Animal studies found pancreatic tumor cells thrive when exposed to fructose concentrations similar to what’s found in many HFCS-sweetened beverages.[7] More research is needed to determine if HFCS specifically contributes to cancer risk in humans at typical consumption levels. But the animal research raises questions.

Nutrient poor

Foods and drinks containing HFCS are often highly processed and offer very limited nutritional value. At the same time, the HFCS makes these empty calorie products taste good, which may encourage overconsumption and displacement of more nutritious foods in the diet. Relying too heavily on HFCS-laden products could potentially lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies long-term.[8]

Environmental issues

The greenhouse gas emissions associated with corn production are 50% higher than some alternative crop options because of the intensive farming required.[9] Widespread corn farming for cheap HFCS may contribute substantially to environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions fueling climate change.

HFCS vs. Sugar – Which is Worse?

One of the most hotly debated comparisons regarding sweeteners is high fructose corn syrup versus regular table sugar (sucrose). Here is an overview of how they compare:

Nutritional composition

Sucrose is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose bonded together, while the fructose and glucose in HFCS are separate but in roughly similar ratios. The most commonly used forms of HFCS are:[10]

  • HFCS-42 – contains 42% fructose and 58% glucose
  • HFCS-55 – contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose

This means HFCS and sucrose contain very similar amounts of fructose and glucose, even though the molecules are slightly different.


High fructose corn syrup and sucrose both provide approximately 4 calories per gram. From a calorie standpoint, they are identical.


HFCS-42 has similar sweetness to sucrose, while HFCS-55 is slightly sweeter. Food manufacturers can adjust sweetness by altering the fructose-glucose ratio.

Insulin response

Studies show HFCS and sucrose elicit similar insulin responses and blood glucose spikes when consumed.[11] They impact blood sugar levels equally, indicating no difference in effects on diabetes risk.

Fructose absorption

Excess fructose consumption from either HFCS or sucrose may have detrimental effects by overloading liver metabolism. But research indicates the body appears to absorb fructose at the same rates for both sweeteners.[12] So neither has an advantage in terms of fructose absorption rate and subsequent impact on the liver.

Appetite stimulation

Some studies suggest fructose fails to stimulate insulin and leptin (appetite suppressing hormones) as much as glucose. This could theoretically increase hunger and appetite when consuming foods high in fructose from either HFCS or sucrose.[13] More studies are needed to determine if one sweetener promotes overeating significantly more than the other.

Fat production

Animal studies suggest the unbound fructose in HFCS may be more likely to contribute to fat production than the bonded fructose in sucrose.[14] But other analyses show nearly identical metabolic effects between the two sweeteners. More research is required to know if HFCS has a true edge in terms of fat production and fatty liver disease.

Bottom line

Based on the available evidence, high fructose corn syrup does not appear significantly different from regular sugar in composition, sweetness, absorption rates, energy content, insulin responses, or any other metabolic effect. Both contain similar amounts of fructose and glucose and pose equivalent health risks if overconsumed.

Ways to Reduce HFCS Consumption

Because more research is still needed on the potential unique health risks of high fructose corn syrup, some consumers may want to cut back on HFCS specifically. Here are some tips for limiting exposure from the diet:

Read ingredient labels

Scan ingredient labels closely and avoid products that list “high fructose corn syrup” or “corn syrup” near the beginning. Foods where HFCS is one of the first few ingredients likely contain sizable amounts.

Avoid sugary beverages

Many soft drinks, fruit punches, and other sweetened beverages contain HFCS as the main sweetener. Avoiding sodas and similar drinks is one simple way to reduce intake substantially.

Buy whole, unprocessed foods

Focusing diet on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, beans, nuts and healthy fats makes avoiding HFCS easier. These unprocessed options are naturally HFCS-free.

Cook more meals at home

Far less HFCS lurks in home-cooked meals made from scratch compared to highly processed convenience foods and take-out. Preparing more food at home makes controlling ingredients easier.

Beware of condiments

Many common condiments and sauces like ketchup, salad dressing, barbecue sauce and others contain HFCS. Make your own or read labels carefully when buying prepared condiment products.

Limit processed grain products

Breads, crackers, breakfast cereals, pastries and other grain foods often contain HFCS. Choosing whole grain options and reading labels helps identify HFCS-free varieties.

Don’t rely on “natural” labels

Foods labeled as “natural” may still contain HFCS. The only way to really know is checking the actual ingredient list, not just the front packaging claims.

Avoid fruity yogurts

Many yogurts, especially fruity flavors, include HFCS. Opt for unsweetened plain yogurt and add fresh fruit yourself to control sweetener content.


High fructose corn syrup offers convenience and cost benefits that make it attractive for food manufacturers to use in processed foods and beverages. However, given the potential links to obesity, metabolic disease, cancer risk, liver dysfunction, and other concerning health effects, consumers may wish to exercise caution with HFCS consumption. While more research is still needed, limiting processed foods and soda intake provides a simple way for most people to reduce HFCS in their diets significantly. Reading labels carefully, cooking more meals at home, and focusing on whole foods nutrition are other strategies to help minimize exposure to this pervasive sweetener until its health impacts are better understood.

Leave a Comment