A flask of high fructose corn syrup sits by two ears of corn.

Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Worse Than Sugar?

Over the years, food manufacturers have tried to develop more accessible, cheaper ways to make foods by using sugar alternatives. Sugar is sometimes expensive to grow and harvest. Corn, on the other hand, grows relatively quickly and in abundance. You can yield several corn crops per year on the same land when done right, so when scientists found ways to create sugar substances from corn, adding it to foods in place of sugar was a no-brainer!

High fructose corn syrup seems to be everywhere these days. It’s in a lot of foods we eat every day, even the ones you don’t think would have sugar alternatives in them. What is the difference? Is one worse or better for you? 

The main difference between corn syrup and sugar is that corn syrup contains both fructose and glucose. It has the same number of calories as an equal amount of sugar, but it rates higher on the glycemic index. Compared to consuming regular sugar, eating high fructose corn syrup introduces more sugar into your bloodstream, causing a higher spike. Constantly elevated or spiking blood sugar causes inflammation that taxes your system and over time can lead to diabetes and eventually kidney disease if left unchecked.

High Fructose Corn Syrup and the Glycemic Index

Bottle of high fructose corn syrup sits in a bottle in a lab.

Have you ever heard of the glycemic index? Almost every food is assigned a number from 0-100. Pure glucose has the value of 100, meaning it’s the highest you can go when it comes to the rise in blood sugar (glucose) levels after consumption. The higher a number on the glycemic index a food has, the more it causes your blood sugars to spike after you eat it. 

Lower numbers mean it’s easier for the body to break down the carbohydrates in the food item, lessening its impact on your blood sugar. Researchers believe that eating foods with lower glycemic index values is favorable for weight management and things like disease prevention. 

Knowing that high fructose corn syrup has a higher glycemic index value than sugar (87 for corn syrup and 60 for sugar) points to the fact that it’s harder for the body to break down. Thus, it can cause a higher relative spike in blood sugar levels and trigger weight gain and other adverse health effects. 

Why is High Fructose Corn Syrup Used More Than Sugar?

Soda label implying it is made with high fructose corn syrup.

So, if sugar is, relatively speaking, better for you, then why do we see so much high fructose corn syrup? 

When it was first developed in the United States in the 1950s, high fructose corn wasn’t exactly seen as a viable product. Sugar was still very affordable then, so there wasn’t much appetite for sugar alternatives. 

That changed, however, in the 1970s, when imported sugar became much more expensive as countries placed tariffs and export duties on sugar. Rather than pass on the increased cost of making cookies, candy, and other foods to consumers, large manufacturers scrambled to find a replacement that made their products just as sweet and delicious at a lower cost. 

On top of the demand for sugar alternatives, the U.S. government has a history of subsidizing the domestic corn industry. As a result, corn prices stayed very low and made high fructose corn syrup a bargain for food manufacturers. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of them began to abandon sugar altogether for what was an economical alternative. 

How Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Made?

High fructose corn syrup and corn kernals.

It’s easy to get deep in the weeds on corn syrup production. We’ll give you a brief overview to start. 

First, of course, you need some corn. So to start making high fructose corn syrup, you’ll need to mill some corn, which creates corn starch. Next, producers add enzymes to the corn starch in a process that makes the starch transform into a syrup that mainly contains glucose. Over time, though, the enzymes trigger an isomeric process that changes the glucose into fructose. 

When the corn starch that’s now a syrup becomes approximately 42 percent fructose, it’s added to baked goods, candy, and other processed foods you see on your grocery store shelves. 

Higher concentrations of fructose end up in soft drinks, coffee syrups, and other concentrated sweeteners. 

Pros & Cons: What the Research Says About the Health of High Fructose Corn Syrup

High fructose corn syrup in a flask.

A lot of research has gone into determining whether high fructose corn syrup is worse or better for you than regular sugar. In general, these are the pros:


Long Shelf Life

High fructose corn syrup generally has a longer shelflife than natural sugars. It’s one of the main reasons why food manufacturers use so much of it to this day. They can put it into sweets and baked goods that can last on shelves for months and even years. As a result, it’s a great cost saver for food companies. 


High fructose corn syrup is easier to work with inside processing plants and when developing new products for the market. 

It’s Cheap! 

This is the central selling point for high fructose corn syrup. There is a ton of it, and it’s affordable to make. The U.S. continues to be a massive corn crop grower internationally, and the government continues to provide incentives for farmers to grow corn. 

alphabet gummy candy spelling out corn syrup

Of course, there are some cons to working with high fructose corn syrup and putting it into so many of the foods we eat. Here are some of the cons:


Weight Gain

In 2010, Princeton University conducted extensive research into high fructose corn syrup and its effects on health. In tests done on rat models, they found that the animals that ate high fructose corn syrup gained more weight even when they ate the same number of calories as other rats.

In addition, the rats gained weight concentrated in the stomach area and exhibited other traits associated with obesity. This is likely since the high fructose corn syrup has a higher glycemic index value and is more challenging for the body to process. 


There is some evidence to suggest that high fructose corn syrup leads to overeating. Researchers think that this is because people generally feel less satisfied (or full) after eating high fructose corn syrup in food products. 

HFCS in Drinks

Scientists believe that the human body processes high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, differently when it comes in the form of sugary drinks like juices and sodas because they have a higher percentage of fructose. This can lead to weight can and other adverse health effects. 

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Safe?

A health expert is doing tests on food.

A lot of research has gone into HFCS and whether it’s safe. So far, it remains legal and still goes inside many of the foods we eat regularly. Health experts, however, warn against eating too much high fructose corn syrup. 

To be fair, though, they typically warn against any sugar or sugar alternative consumption, saying to keep it to occasional treats rather than as a diet staple. When it comes to eating anything sugary, health experts stress that it’s important to consume a balance of glucose and fructose to help the body break down the carbs in sugar to avoid unnecessary weight gain and other harmful effects of eating too much fructose. 



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