As food villains go, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is near the top of the list. It debuted in the 1970s and became the darling of the food and beverage industry because it tasted similar to sugar, but was more stable during food processing.
However, as its prominence has grown – HFCS shows up in sodas, bread and condiments, among a vast array of products – so has the size of American waistbands [source: Hendley]. Coincidence or culprit?
The jury is still out. Chemically, HFCS is very similar to sucrose (table sugar). While sugar comprises equal amounts of fructose and glucose, HFCS is 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose. An additional 3 percent of larger sugar molecules, known as higher saccharides, make up the rest. Both sucrose and HFCS have the same number of calories. Consuming an excess of either sweetener can lead to weight gain, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes [sources: Parker, Hendley].
However, there does seem to be a difference in the way HFCS (made from corn) and sucrose (made from beets and cane) are metabolized. In studies of rats fed a steady diet of HFCS, the rodents gained a lot more weight and belly fat than the rats that were fed sucrose. Researchers don't yet understand why the HFCS-fed rats were more prone to obesity. One hypothesis is that the excess fructose was metabolized to produce fat, while the glucose was either processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate in the liver and muscles [source: Parker].