I am a person that keeps saying “sugar is sugar,” but there are so many people who think honey is somehow “healthier” than high fructose corn syrup which we use in many foods. The fact is, from a chemical standpoint, there are very minor differences between honey and other sources of sugar.
One of the reasons for this belief is that honey is “natural” while high fructose corn syrup is an evil chemical. The appeal to nature is a logical fallacy that states that “natural” is good or better than the alternatives.
Let’s take a look at sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey. There’s a bit of science involved, but I’ll try to keep it easy to read.
What is “sugar”?
A lot of people think that they know the answer to this question. But the actual answer is a lot of heavy science. We’re going to head down the path of heavy science because we need to describe what high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is.
Before we can discuss HFCS, we need to answer the question – what exactly is sugar? For most people, it’s the white stuff on the table, and according to everything we hear today, it should be avoided. However, like most things, sugar is much more complicated than that.
There are around twenty individual, naturally-found sugars, called monosaccharides. Of all of those sugars, only four play a significant role in human nutrition – glucose, fructose, galactose, and ribose (which has a very minor nutritional role, though a major one as the backbone of DNA and RNA).
Got that? Humans can only use four sugars, specifically those monosaccharides, in all of the biochemical mechanisms in every cell.
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 essential sugars in the gut.
But here it gets a bit more complicated. Many monosaccharide sugars form disaccharides which are sugars made of two covalently bound monosaccharides.
Table sugar, the white stuff we put in our coffee, is called sucrose – a disaccharide made of one molecule of glucose covalently 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.
There are two other examples of disaccharides that are consumed by humans (and other organisms):
- Much of the sugar in milk is lactose, which is glucose bonded to galactose. The reason some people are “lactose intolerant” is that they lack the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose. Since lactose cannot be absorbed in the human gut, it is used by gut flora which produces a lot of gas making it very uncomfortable for those individuals.
- Maltose, or malt sugar, is two glucose molecules.
Each monosaccharide and disaccharide have a slightly different taste, and some rare ones provide unique flavors to certain fruits and vegetables. But when these disaccharides enter the intestinal tract, they are quickly disassociated by water or acids plus enzymes into simple monosaccharides.
So when you put sucrose in your coffee and consume it, it will be broken down into two sugars that actually can be used by the body’s metabolic processes – glucose and fructose.
But we need to provide you with even more science (it’s not bad, I promise) about sugars.
Starches, sometimes called carbohydrates, are also sugars. They are just long chains, or polysaccharides, of individual sugars, almost always glucose. Cellulose, which is a major component of paper, wood, natural plant fibers, and many other items, is a glucose polymer. So are insect shells, just for a bit of trivia.
Generally, these long-chain polysaccharides cannot be broken down by humans, though our intestinal flora can use them for food. In addition, bulk fiber, an important part of your diet for intestinal motility, is generally a long polysaccharide chain.
Remember, humans can only absorb monosaccharides — glucose, fructose, galactose, and ribose. In other words, all those disaccharides and polysaccharides must be broken down into the constituent monosaccharides before it has any usefulness for a human.
The gut has a variety of different enzymes that break down these starches and disaccharides – so sucrose cannot be absorbed, but it is broken down by sucrase into glucose and fructose, then absorbed.
By the way, any disaccharide or polysaccharide that isn’t broken down remains in the gut, providing food for our gut bacteria, thereby maintaining a “healthy” digestive system. No, I’m not advocating colon cleansing.
There is one more crucial point to note about these sugars, which will be important as we move along with this story. Each sugar has a different sugar taste for humans.
For example, fructose tastes 1.73 times sweeter than sucrose despite having the same caloric content. So technically, you could use about 58% less fructose than sucrose to get the same sweetness. You’re probably seeing where this is going, but stay tuned.
What is high fructose corn syrup?
HFCS consists of 24% water, and the rest are fructose and glucose molecules – 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 that are found in many foods such as fruits and, yes, honey.
There is simply no difference between the fructose and glucose in HFCS, and the fructose and glucose in sucrose, the disaccharide derived from cane sugar. The chemical formulas are exactly the same. It’s the exact same carbons, the exact same hydrogens, and the exact same oxygens. No difference.
All individual sugars are the same across the planet. Glucose, fructose, galactose, or ribose, whether produced by a plant, an animal, a bacteria, or a manufacturing plant in Iowa, are exactly the same molecule.
And, the constituent elements in all sugars are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and they don’t differ if they’re used by a plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, or that high fructose corn syrup manufacturing plant in Iowa.
Fructose is fructose, sucrose is sucrose, glucose is glucose, no matter the source. “Natural” fructose from honey is no different than “manufactured” fructose found in HFCS.
This is one of the major misconceptions of the pseudoscience of the natural food world, that somehow sugar from a living organism is magically different from sugar produced in a manufacturing plant.
More science below, you can skip unless you’re just like me, obsessed with information:
There are two main types of HFCS, 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.
There is another type, HFCS-90, approximately 90% fructose and 10% glucose, which is used in small quantities for specialty applications (interestingly, low-calorie drinks, because, for the same sweetness about 33% fewer calories are added), but it is primarily blended with HFCS 42 to make HFCS 55.
Well before the advent of HFCS, in the 1950’s, candy and soft drink manufacturers utilized “invert sugar” by exposing sucrose to a weak acid solution, then recrystallizing which dissociated the covalent bond between the glucose and fructose, and exposing the fructose molecule, which, of course, is so sweet, that it made the overall effect to be much more sweet with the same amount of sugar.
This allowed the manufacturers of candy and sodas to get more sweetness with less sugar, saving a lot of money. So, “high fructose” has been around since the 1950’s–candy manufacturers exploited the greater sweetness of fructose even before HFCS was available.
So, high fructose corn syrup is not only just sugar, it’s badly named. HFCS doesn’t mean it’s 99% fructose, it means it has slightly more fructose than glucose in solution. Human physiology is not going to notice much (or any) difference between HFCS and sucrose. Whoever invented the name “high fructose corn syrup” did a disservice to the industry. There is just slightly more fructose than is found in sucrose (or table sugar), not enough to make any metabolic or physiologic difference to humans consuming them.
I cannot repeat this enough, so I will. The components of sucrose from sugar beets and sugar cane and the glucose and fructose in HFCS are chemically and scientifically identical. Neither is more or less “natural” than the other.
No organism’s physiology could distinguish between the fructose and glucose in HFCS from the fructose and glucose in cane sugar. All organisms, including humans, biologically metabolize each fructose and glucose in relatively the same way. We should not endow HFCS with some special properties that it simply does not have.
Honey and high fructose corn syrup
Let’s start at the top. Honey is about 17% water, with almost all the remainder being sugars. Those sugars are fructose 38%, glucose 31%, maltose 7%, sucrose 1.3%, and 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 very similar as sugars go. I know someone in the comments will try to tell me that the special mixture of sugars in honey has some magical power for health, but I’m not buying that without a lot of clinical trials published in peer-reviewed journals.
Before you jump on some ad hominem argument that there is a conspiracy run by Big HFCS 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 to health, I would state that any sugar in any form in large amounts over time might have serious health consequences.
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 would be negligible.
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.”
- 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.
- Raatz SK, Johnson LK, Picklo MJ. Consumption of Honey, Sucrose, and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Produces Similar Metabolic Effects in Glucose-Tolerant and -Intolerant Individuals. J Nutr. 2015 Sep 2. pii: jn218016. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 26338891.