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: 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? 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.
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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.
- 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.