Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for both sides in a federal court case that’s shaping up as the battle of the sweeteners.
Yet behind all the legal bluster between sugar and high fructose corn syrup are two products that are similar in their chemical makeup and effect on the human body, experts say.
Here are a few things to know about the two saccharine substances as a trial begins Tuesday.
What’s in a Name?
Sugar and high fructose corn syrup both contain glucose and fructose, just in slightly different proportions.
What’s commonly called “sugar” in everyday life is actually sucrose, a compound that’s 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Fructose is the most common sugar in fruit.
High fructose corn syrup is made up of the same two sugars. But as the name implies, one type of high fructose corn syrup has slightly more fructose than “sugar” — 55 percent — and the rest is glucose. The other type has 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose.
Sugar producers argue their product is more natural and that high fructose corn syrup is as addictive as some illegal substances. Corn refiners counter that sugar producers are just trying to make up for market lost starting in the 1970s, when the cheaper high fructose corn syrup came on the market.
Corn refiners lost a bid to change the name high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar” when the Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2012 that sugar was a solid, dried and crystallized food, not syrup. But the government has yet to take a stand on which sweetener, if either, is more nutritionally beneficial.
Roger Clemens, a University of Southern California research professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical science who has studied sugars, says the human body treats both the same and there is no appreciable difference between the two when it comes to caloric value or metabolic effect.
“They are equivalent forms of sugar,” he says. “It’s all about perception.”
So What’s the Big Deal?
Neutral experts in the debate between sugar and high fructose corn syrup say it all boils down to semantics and marketing.
Public opinion that once favored high fructose corn syrup has now tilted toward sugar.
Most recently, a third sweetener called agave has risen in popularity because it’s believed to be more natural — but the chemical make-up of the sap from the agave plant is “chemically and metabolically almost the same as high fructose corn syrup,” Clemens said.
Sugar by Any Other Name
The trial isn’t likely to end the debate or wipe away confusion about sweeteners.
Sugar listed on packaging goes by many names and all of them mean one thing: a sweet taste.
Maltose, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey or a variety of fruit juice concentrates are all ingredients that indicate sugar is in a food product.
When Sugar (of Any Type) Isn’t So Sweet
Eat too much of any type of sugar, of course, and you’ll be in trouble.
High consumption of sugar, agave or high fructose corn syrup over time can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Some studies have shown that high fructose corn syrup causes fatty liver disease when fed to animals in experiments, but that’s when it accounts for 25 to 35 percent of the animal’s daily caloric intake — an amount a human would never consume, Clemens says.
“It goes back to the old [motto]: balance, moderation and variety are the keys to healthy living,” he says.