What to Know About High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on July 14, 2023
3 min read

In recent years, experts have focused on the use of high-fructose corn syrup in many foods and drinks. Because of consumer preferences and higher corn prices, demand for high-fructose corn syrup has been decreasing since the 2000s. Some large companies have begun removing it from their products.  

Some researchers say high-fructose corn syrup contributes to obesity, but others have argued that it’s a misunderstood ingredient and no worse than sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made from corn. When corn starch is broken down into individual molecules, it becomes corn syrup, which is 100% glucose, a simple sugar. Enzymes are added to convert some of this glucose into fructose.

High-fructose corn syrup was introduced in the 1970s. It has the same calories as other added sugars. High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, with better flavor enhancement and longer shelf life. It’s more stable and consistent, especially in acidic foods and drinks. 

As a result, high-fructose corn syrup went from 1% of sweeteners in the U.S. in the 1970s to 42% by 2004. From 1977 to 1978, the average American consumed about 37 grams of fructose per day. In 2008, this jumped to 54.7 grams, about 10.2% of total daily calories. The number was even higher in teenagers, at 72.8 grams per day. 

Americans get fructose mostly in sweetened drinks (30%), grains (22%), and fruit or fruit juice (19%).

Foods with high-fructose corn syrup include:

  • Fast food items
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Bread and baked goods
  • Sweetened dairy products like yogurts
  • Candies 
  • Canned foods like soups and fruit
  • Soft drinks 

High-fructose corn syrup isn’t all that different from sugar. The two most common forms contain either 42% or 55% fructose, as well as glucose and water. Regular sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose.

There have been scientific studies on fructose and high-fructose corn syrup, but few of them have looked at humans. Some researchers have noted that many of these studies use much higher levels of fructose (60% of a diet) than most people would get. Research on sugar has found that it may lead to:

Obesity. Many things affect your obesity risk — such as physical activity, stress, and your genes — but getting an excessive amount of sugar may play a role. It’s possible that fructose doesn’t stimulate the parts of the brain that control appetite. However, more studies are needed.

Liver problems. Getting too much fructose can raise your risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This is when too many fats are stored in liver cells. When you have too much fat buildup, it can lead to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, scarring of the liver, and liver damage.

High triglycerides. Studies have shown that fructose can raise triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides contribute to health issues like arteriosclerosis (the thickening of the artery walls) and pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Researchers found that a 6-week diet of 17% fructose led to a 32% increase in triglycerides.

More uric acid. Fructose can also stimulate uric acid production. Too much uric acid can lead to gout, a painful type of arthritis.

Type 2 diabetes.Insulin is a hormone that your pancreas makes to regulate blood sugar. If you have type 2 diabetes, it means your body can’t use insulin the way it should. In a small study in which healthy adults drank sweetened drinks for 3 weeks, scientists found that even moderate amounts of fructose and sucrose changed how responsive their cells were to insulin.

Some researchers compared type 2 diabetes cases with the use of high-fructose corn syrup in 42 countries. Nations that use high-fructose corn syrup tend to have higher levels of diabetes than those that don’t.

  •  Read ingredient labels. It may be in more processed foods than you think. 
  • Cut down on sodas and other sweetened drinks. Drink water instead. Add berries, lemon, lime, or cucumber if you need more flavor.
  • Snack on whole foods like nuts and fruits instead of cookies and candy.
  • Go with homemade baked goods instead of store-bought ones.

The American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) of added sugar and men no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. A 12-ounce cola has 10 ¼ teaspoons of sugar, and an orange soda has 13 teaspoons.