Honey and high fructose corn syrup – no health differences

One of the enduring myths of the “natural food” crowd is that somehow nature does things better. That’s actually considered a logical fallacy.

I am convinced that part of the anti-GMO beliefs center on some ridiculous “natural genetic selection is inherently better than man-made genetic selection.” Well, the evidence doesn’t support that nonsense, but that rarely matters to those who rely upon their misinformed opinion rather than scientific evidence.

One of the tropes that have been passed around is about honey and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – honey is good, HFCS is bad. Scientifically, this is ridiculous, but the honey industry, disregarding the potential that science may actually refute that trope, funded a real scientific study about honey and high fructose corn syrup – well, let’s just say that the results confirm that honey is not the “nectar of the gods.”

All about sugars

 

Ok, this might get very science-y, but I promise that you’ll learn something about sugars so you can impress friends, win trivia contests, and never fear sugar again.

So, what exactly is a sugar? For most people, sugar is simply the sweet white stuff that we put in our coffee. Or is the root of all that ails humans. But the science will get you closer to the facts about sugars.

There are two broad types of sugars, aldose and ketose, along with over twenty individual, naturally-found sugars, called monosaccharides. Of all of those sugars, only four play any significant role in human nutrition: glucosefructosegalactose, and ribose (which has a very minor nutritional role, though a major one as the backbone of DNA and RNA). Got that? Four sugars are all we can absorb into the human body.

There are other monosaccharides found in nature that can be consumed, but they either just feed the gut flora, or are enzymatically converted into one of the four basic sugars by the gut flora.

But here it gets a bit more complicated. Many monosaccharide sugars form disaccharides which are sugars made of two covalently bound monosaccharides. So two simple sugars will be bound together–they often have different tastes, and show up in different foods as a result of natural processes.

Table sugar, the white stuff we put in our coffee, is called sucrose–a disaccharide of one molecule of glucose bound to one molecule of fructose. Sucrose is also the main sugar in most other commercially purchased sugars that you find including brown sugar, molasses, beet sugar, and maple sugar.

And more importantly, the body does not absorb sucrose. It is broken down into its constituent monosaccharides–fructose and glucose, so that it can be absorbed.

So you may hear about other types of sugar, lactose for example, that you might think is unique. But it is just a combination of glucose and galactose, and when you consume it (usually in milk), it’s simply broken down eventually into glucose and galactose and absorbed as such.

Generally, foods will contain more than one type of sugar in different ratios. Cane sugar, which is sucrose, is a rarity. Most fruits, for example, have highly variable rations of glucose to fructose, and may actually have a low percentage of sucrose.

Let me sum this up. There are are only four sugars that can be absorbed. And that’s it.

 

High fructose corn syrup

 

OK, before I can thoroughly rip into the folklore that honey is better than HFCS, let’s find out what is that evil sounding chemical.

HFCS consists of 24% water, and the rest fructose and glucose–the water just makes the fructose and glucose into a syrup. That’s it, nothing more than fructose, glucose and water, no different than all of the other fructose, glucose and water molecules made into a syrup.

There are two types of HFCS. The first, HFCS 55 (used mostly in soft drinks) which is approximately 55% fructose and 42% glucose; and HFCS 42 (used in other types of beverages and processed foods), which is approximately 42% fructose and 53% glucose.

That’s it. It’s a solution of fructose and glucose in water, nothing more. These are not weird chemical versions of fructose or glucose, they are the exact same molecules as nature makes in stuff like, well honey.

 
 

Honey and high fructose corn syrup

 

Let’s start at the top. Honey is about 17% water, with almost all the remainder being sugars. The main sugars are fructose 38%, glucose 31%, maltose 7%, sucrose 1.3%, other sugars 1.5%.

Look at that carefully, because honey itself is high fructose. Isn’t that ironic.

In a recently published article in the Journal of Nutrition, a team of nutritionists at the US Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota reported a predictable (for those of us with scientific knowledge of sugar metabolism) discovery that there are essentially the same health benefits (and I supposed consequences) for natural honey and high fructose corn syrup – yes, they’re the same.

Let that sink in while you spend more money finding HFCS-free food in your local Whole Foods. Honey and HFCS are the same.

Please excuse my laughter at the irony.

Before you jump on some ad hominem argument that there is a conspiracy run by Big HFCS that is pushing fake science to the world. Well, don’t go there. This study was supported “by a grant from the National Honey Board.”

Yes, Big Honey sponsored this study. And my irony meter just blew up again.

Back to science. The researchers gave subjects honey, cane sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup, then measured their blood sugars, insulin levels, body weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. The study only included about 56 individuals, a very small group. So, even if they showed a difference, I’m not sure I’d have accepted it, but since it showed no difference, even with a small population, the statistics are pretty clear.

They found little change between the groups that consumed the different sugars.

To be fair, there was only one noticeable change. A blood fat that’s a marker for heart disease rose significantly for all three sugar consuming groups. As I’ve said many times, HFCS doesn’t matter–any sugar does.

The research team learned that in terms of chemical effects on the body, all three “are very, very similar.” In other words, if you’re removing HFCS from your foods, but replacing it with any other sugar, the net effect on your short-term (and potentially long-term) health is non existence.

According to Susan K Raatz, lead researcher from the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, “a sweetener is a sweetener, no matter the source.”

Summary, the TL;DR version

 

  • Sugar is sugar is sugar.
  • High fructose corn syrup is just glucose plus fructose plus water.
  • Honey and high fructose corn syrup have the same health effects, which is essentially nothing over the short-term.
  • Removing HFCS from your diet is a waste of time and money. But Whole Foods will be happy to take your money.

 

Key citation:

 

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
  • This comment is from Joel A Harrison who couldn’t log into the discussion:

    When just comparing honey, sucrose, and high fructose corn syrup, you are absolutely right that basically they are the same thing. Honey and sucrose (table sugar) are disaccharides containing approximately equal amounts of glucose and fructose. High fructose corn syrup is also a disaccharide with similar proportions. However, glucose is used directly by cells in the process called glycolysis, while fructose goes to the liver and proceeds through a specific metabolic process which creates, among other things, triglycerides, store fats, and research has shown to be linked to insulin resistance. In moderate amounts this poses little to no problem. However, we are not getting moderate amounts. In the past 40 – 50 years the average intake of sugar for Americans has gone up 4 – 5 times. Much of this is hidden, already in the foods we eat. By taking out the fiber and adding salt and sugar to foods, food companies can hide the lower quality and, at the same time, extend the shelf life. Removing fiber and adding sugar and salt lowers the risk of bacterial growth by lowering the water content through osmosis. Extensive and compelling research has associated the increase in sugar to the Metabolic syndrome. The Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

    I was shocked when I started investigating the amount of sugar in foods. I found as high as 20 to 30 grams in some canned beans, in frozen foods, in breakfast cereals. In other words, without adding any sugar to my foods or drinks, e.g. black coffee I could be getting three times or more the recommended amount of daily sugar intake. What is more, the FDA is trying to change the food labels so that added sugar is listed separately. There is a difference between sugar, for instance in fruit juice and in whole fruits, that is, the fiber in whole fruits slows the absorption of sugar and has a few more trace vitamin and minerals. The food industry is fighting the label change. Since we claim to believe in free markets and a sine qua non of free markets is the consumer’s ability to choose based on available information, I should have the right to know how much sugar is being added to my foods. It has also been shown in numerous studies that the amount of sugar and salt the average person adds to their foods would be less than the hidden amounts, often not as noticeable.

    So besides the hiding of lower quality foods and the increased shelf life, why is so much high fructose corn syrup used? First, guidelines encouraged reduction of fat intake based on the studies by Ancel Keys,. resulting, for instance, in cookies being sold with no fat; but incredibly high content of sugar to maintain some semblance of taste. Researchers who later looked at Keys’ data found that sugar was also implicated. He had ignored this. A reasonable diet should look at both fat and sugar intake; but government totally ignored sugar. Numerous studies have found the average American intake of fat has decreased over the years; yet, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other problems continue to rise. Second, our government subsidizes the corn industry so that the food industry can purchase high fructose corn syrup at rock bottom prices, below cost. Food seems cheap; but only because we, the taxpayer, subsidize it, so we actually pay for it. In other words, we pay the price for the corn and high fructose corn syrup, pay the price for the health consequences, and pay the price for medical care.

    So, though you are right about there being little difference between honey, table sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, you are absolutely wrong in failing to understand the increase in overall sugar intake, mainly from government subsidized high fructose corn syrup, and the results to our health and medical expenditures.

  • Diddly doo

    One large piece of fact missing here. Boiled processed ‘ runny honey lite’ is not the same as raw honey but it is the same as processed corn syrup. Raw set honey is teeming with life, the processed ones are as dead as a doornail. If your banal article realized that it might have been interesting – but oh dear – it’s just another septic rant with most of the facts missing. Well done, have a Novello.

    It’s almost worth and Offit, good effort.

    • Troll – if you could read, which you cannot, you might notice that this was about one article that had nothing to do with the bullshit that you spout.

      You know, you really have nothing to contribute here.

      • Sandy Perlmutter

        Hey chav, “Most microorganisms do not grow in honey because of its low water activity of 0.6.[3] However, honey sometimes contains dormant endospores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can be dangerous to infants, as the endospores can transform into toxin-producing bacteria in infants’ immature intestinal tracts, leading to illness and even death” Oh yeah, botulism. Alive and kicking!
        “…Infantile botulism shows geographical variation. In the UK, only six cases have been reported between 1976 and 2006,[85] yet the U.S. has much higher rates: 1.9 per 100,000 live births, 47.2% of which are in California.[86] While the risk honey poses to infant health is small, it is recommended not to take the risk until after one year of age, and then giving honey is considered safe.”

        Not to mention a bit of pollen, found in honey. Pollen is the sperm cells of various plants. It is allergenic in some people. There is also some (ugh) bee saliva in honey. I can smell bees when I smell honey. I think it is disgusting, but that is just my opinion.

        Toxic honey: “Honey produced from flowers of rhododendrons, mountain laurels, sheep laurel, and azaleas may cause honey intoxication. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting. Less commonly, low blood pressure, shock, heart rhythm irregularities, and convulsions may occur, with rare cases resulting in death. Honey intoxication is more likely when using “natural” unprocessed honey and honey from farmers who may have a small number of hives. Commercial processing, with pooling of honey from numerous sources, is thought to dilute any toxins.

        Toxic honey may also result when bees are proximate to tutu bushes (Coriaria arborea) and the vine hopper insect (Scolypopa australis). Both are found throughout New Zealand. Bees gather honeydew produced by the vine hopper insects feeding on the tutu plant. ”

        Watch out for toxic raw honey!

        Wikipedia, with many links: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey

        • septicflush

          What a lovely little story from Muffy. Wikipedia has been septic for a long time. It has lots of conspiracy thoughts Shandy about anything that rattles its cages. yeah the idea of pooling and sterilizing is what they did to milk and rendered it food useless. Yes, the farmers who didn’t give a shit got away with poor hygiene practice from pasteurizing the milk but the milk lost its food value. You know milk advertising can say ” Milk contains the following” but it can’s say “If you drink milk you will get” that was the price of Pasteur, clean useless food.

          The issue here, which you have conveniently sidestepped in the great septic tradition, is that mass food production devalues the nutritional value of food. Your appeal to emotion, babies, botulism, and the highly toxic Californian over vaxxed baby illness syndrome being blamed on honey! You should write articles for Procter and Gamble, you could sell horseshite as medicine, go on, give it a try. Well done

    • When diddly doodoo writes a post that starts with “One large piece of fact missing here is…” you just know it’s going to be good. Or irrelevant.

  • brekinapez

    One of my sisters-in-law worships at the altar of Whole Foods, and no matter what evidence I bring her that she is wasting time and money shopping there (I have seen her spend $500 on a week’s worth of groceries for just herself and her husband buying the supposedly better “organic” crap and all the crazy essential oils) she finds a way to rationalize or claim that WF is right and science is wrong.

    She also let her infant son piss all over the house because diapers restricted his freedom and hindered his growth potential. People like that will never accept reality.

  • Kat

    “These ARE weird chemical versions of fructose or glucose,”? Not sure that’s what you meant… 😉 Next stop, agave!

  • Sandy Perlmutter

    You can tell you are being scammed when some “health food” lists “crystallized cane juice” or “evaporated cane juice” as an ingredient. Yeah, cane sugar in drag. It is really irritating that they hide the stuff inside a processing name. Just as phony, “sea salt” as an ingredient. It’s salt, sodium chloride. No holiness component.

    • Sandy Perlmutter

      Oy, chav, “Almost all salts for consumption can be considered sea salts as they originated from a sea at some point in time.” Yeah, salt mines used to be seas, a long time ago.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_salt

      Did you do electrolysis of sea salt in the first grade? I bet you were in remedial reading!

      You can get iodized salt, which prevents goiter. Sea salt does not contain enough iodine. It is suitable for fancy salads.