What's the Difference Between Corn Syrup and Sugar?

The unpopularity and fear of high-fructose corn syrup have led the Corn Refiners Association to ask the federal government's permission to drop "high-fructose" and change the syrup's name to "corn sugar."

The hope is that a name change and image makeover will help to dispel consumers' unease over buying products containing high-fructose corn syrup, also known as HFCS, as a sugar substitute, according to the association.

Critics of HFCS argue that the new title will make it sound healthy, when several studies have linked it with obesity. Princeton University researchers found rats fed HFCS gained more weight than those fed table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same, according to the study, published in February in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

How do sugar and HFCS stack up against each other?

Health and safety

First created in 1957, high-fructose corn syrup is made from corn milled into corn starch, then processed into syrup that consists almost entirely of glucose. Enzymes then convert the glucose into fructose,  extremely water-soluble sugar that can be found in many sodas and processed foods.

Table sugar consists mainly of sucrose – a molecule that contains both glucose and fructose and is obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets.

HFCS has been steadily replacing table sugar in foods, and now accounts for as much as 40 percent of caloric sweetener use in the United States, according to the Princeton University study. The main reason: It’s cheaper. And some critics charge that this has led to a situation where foods that never used to include sweeteners, or did so in limited quantities, now are routinely made using copious amounts of high-fructose corn syrup.

Although HFCS was declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1976, health experts and shoppers alike have worried about its effects on human health.

Scientists have speculated that HFCS disrupts normal metabolic function and contributes to cancer, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. However, most research has been inconclusive and study results have been debated. While researchers have determined that excessive consumption of HFCS may contribute to obesity and diabetes, the same can be said of regular sugar.

There isn't enough evidence to say that HFCS is less safe to eat than table sugar, according to the American Medical Association, which has stated that HFSC does not appear to be more harmful than other caloric sweeteners.

Calories and flavor

Taste-wise, HFCS's flavor is similar to that of sugar, although HFCS is a bit sweeter.

Researchers who measured the relative sweetness of natural and artificial sweeteners determined HFCS is 1.5 times as sweet as table sugar, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine.

However, the Corn Refiners Association claims that HFCS is not sweeter than sugar, and that it was specifically formulated to provide equal sweetness to table sugar "so that consumers would not perceive a difference in product sweetness and taste."

HFCS provides the sugary taste in regular sodas, while artificial sweeteners give diet colas their distinct flavor. Most people can taste the difference, and HFCS's full-calorie sweetness is often preferred to its zero-calorie stand-ins, according to a 2007 study by University of Illinois scientists.

HFCS is definitely equal to sugar in calories. Both contain four calories per gram, or 16 calories per teaspoon, according to the National Institutes of Health.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.