Home The War on Sugar Q&A Wednesday: High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Table Sugar

Q&A Wednesday: High Fructose Corn Syrup vs. Table Sugar

by Erika Nicole Kendall

On a previous post, I received this comment:

Hi Erika, wonderful blog and interesting read. However, I think this new HFCS paranoia is causing people to over look and not understand the real problem. Sadly, I gather the same misconception in this blog & please correct me if I’m wrong.

One major factor to insulin resistance & type II diabetes is large consumption of fructose. HFCS & all other simple sugars contain large quantities of it. (I tried to get exact ratios but its sounds like most are 1 part fructose: 1 part another compound.) And the same holds true for some versions of HFCS. So swapping any product for the sucrose or fructose version instead of HFCS will probably gain no benefit. (ie. soda with sugar ).

So why not write a rant about “Reasons to forgo food with added sugar!”?

BTW, I don’t want anyone to think this comment means to forgo eating fruit. Fruit is nutritionally dense unlike most processed food.

Well, why not, eh?

The post to which she refers is my post regarding the advertisements in favor of high fructose corn syrup.While the purpose of that post was to give an answer to the unasked question those advertisements posed (which, basically, was “how can you hate or avoid something you know so little about?), the commenter poses a very important point that, I think, deserves a lot more time than a simple comment.

To be honest, I don’t know whether there’s much purpose to a “reasons to forgo food with added sugar” rant, simply because it breaks down to an understanding of “natural sugar” against “processed sugar.”

Okay, here goes.

In nature, the primary place you find sugar is in fruit (there’s also honey, but we’ll save that for another day.) The sugar in fruit is… fructose.

Sidebar: This, I presume, is why people always ask if they should “stop eating fruit,” mixing the anti-high fructose corn syrup message up with the understanding that fructose is a “natural sugar found in fruit.” There’s a big difference between the two.

Whenever you find fruit in nature, it is paired with two things: nutrients and fiber. Emphasis on the fiber. The fiber within the fruit blunts the impact of the sugar on your system and helps cleanse your insides out at the same time.

I always laugh when I talk about sugar, because I think about how white table sugar is produced. When I first came to Miami to visit, I stayed with an old friend and her hubby. I remember sitting on a chair, and seeing her walk up toward me with a long stick in her hand. She sat down next to me, took out a knife, cut a chunk off the stick and bit into it. I’m like, “What on Earth is that?”

“Sugar cane. This is where sugar comes from.”

“And you’re just eating it like that? Your teeth are gonna be sitting next to you in a minute.”

She definitely laughed long and hard at me, and kept on munching away. Aside from the numerous violations I committed in tryin’ to tell her how to do her, I was wrong for a number of reasons.

Consider how table sugar is created:

“Once you get into sugar, you are in sugar for a lifetime,” Archbold said on a recent morning. “People think we just crush the cane and turn it into sugar, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

However, he stresses that the end result is a natural product that is made from nothing but the cane.

From a metal catwalk high above the mill’s floor, Archbold watches as sugar cane is brought in from the field by truck. It’s unloaded 25 tons at a time and fed into the highly industrialized computer-controlled mill. It’s mechanically shredded by huge metal cane knives. Next it’s milled, which means water is added as the cane is mashed.

The purpose of the mill is to extract the sucrose from the cane. A stalk of cane is 13 percent sucrose and 11 percent fiber. The rest is water.

The liquid sucrose is separated from the fiber. Then the raw cane juice is heated, filtered, purified and the water is evaporated. What’s left is a sweet, golden syrup. After more boiling, a rich mixture of crystals and molasses forms. The molasses is separated from the crystals, then the sugar crystals are dried and cooled before packaging. [source: From Cane Field To Your Table…]

The difference between table sugar and the cane from which the sugar comes? There’s no possible way I’m getting as much sugar from chewing through (and swallowing) all that fiber as if I were simply swallowing a tablespoon of sugar. Why? Because with everything else in the sugar cane, I’ll fill up much quicker. There’s no possible way a tablespoon of sugar carries the nutrients that a stalk of sugar cane. Why? Because everything was filtered OUT Of the sugar cane to make the table sugar.. including the nutrients. Lastly, the fiber outright ensures that I’m not going to wreck havoc on my system. A tablespoon of table sugar cannot do that… and it comes from sugar cane.

The sweet part is separated from the part of the food that’s supposed to protect you from the element that, by itself, is harmful to your system. So no – most teas, coffees and juices with sugar added to them have the same effect. Baked goods made with “refined” flours (which go through a similar process, resulting in a flour devoid of fiber) have the same effect. Because of that fiber, it protects not only my insides, but my teeth as well. Something that, again, you won’t find in your average sugary item.

That’s the problem with sugar. In most cases – the way it’s used often results in there being very little to blunt the impact of the sugar on your system, thus resulting in it having the same effect as an overabundance of high fructose corn syrup in your daily diet. I won’t even get on the affects that an abundance of high fructose corn syrup, an abundance of sugar and a lack of fiber can have on our appearance. The difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup is simply that high fructose corn syrup is in almost every processed food item, and almost every processed food item is devoid of fiber.

Why is it devoid of fiber? Simple. Fiber expires quickly, and food manufacturers need their products to be able to sit on shelves for an extended period of time.

So, to address the comment fully (in over a thousand words, with my long-winded self), unnatural forms of sugar are, flat out, unnatural… and our bodies cannot handle them in mass quantities. Do yourself a favor and reevaluate how much of it you have to have… and your body will thank you for it!

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writeli July 14, 2010 - 5:54 PM

This is one of my pet topics, though I don’t live by it as well as I should. Think you hit the nail on the head. I remember my bio professor all those years ago saying that we basically developed a sweet tooth during evolution simply to ensure we’d eat fruit & get the required fiber we needed. So every time we’re eating sugar at all in a processed state, we’re either feeding a sweet tooth (some craving in our brain which shouldn’t guide our diets), or worse, picking up on our body’s craving for fiber & instead giving it a bunch of other stuff. Either way, not good.

I used to laugh about my parents’ hippie ways growing up getting food with as little processing as possible (brown flour, brown Demerara sugar, etc) but now I wish I had kept that up. It’s a lot harder to get back to a good diet than it is to fall out of it!

Erika July 14, 2010 - 8:38 PM

Replace “fiber” with “fiber and nutrients” and there it is. It’s like people who “chew pennies when [their] body craves iron,” in a way. Their body is craving the nutrient, alas…

Now you see why I embrace the name “hippie.” 🙂

Hill July 14, 2010 - 6:41 PM


Natural sugar cane isn’t white. I usually have raw sugar from the Amish market, and it’s brown. Isn’t there a process which makes the sugar white? Can anybody explain that?


Erika July 14, 2010 - 8:49 PM

In order to become the white sugar we are so familiar with, it undergoes a [wholly unnecessary] bleaching process. Once upon a time, our flours, sugars and rices were brown. This was also a time where most Brown (read: Black) things were considered dirty and undesirable, so manufacturers picked up on this and made them sparkling and pristine white.

That’s not me being racist or silly, either – trace it back in history. Anyone can see it for themselves. 🙂

Llenar July 17, 2010 - 10:13 AM

Excellent reply, explanation and information. KUDOS!!!

Valerie July 18, 2010 - 5:03 PM

Ok, so from what I’ve read, brown sugar is brown because it has some of the molasses added back to the white sugar. So it doesn’t mean that if sugar is brown it is healthier. But, the closer it is to the natural state, it should be brown?

Recently I’ve been on the search for this idea of authentic raw sugar. I’m asking myself right now if there really is such a thing. Just because they sell something at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, for example, that says “raw” or “organic” doesn’t mean that it’s really good for you.

So my question is, by saying we want raw sugar, do we really mean we want non-refined cane sugar or pure dried cane juice? That’s what Sucanat claims to be: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sucanat. But then that isn’t true of Demerara. According to wikipedia, the producers of Demerara are still doing a partial disservice by “partially refining sugar cane extract, whereas most brown sugar is made by adding molasses to fully refined sugar.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_brown_sugar

Is that now clear as mud? =)

Honestly, Erika has moved me to just make sugar as small a part of my diet as possible! Local raw honey, grade B maple syrup, and good ol’ fashion fruits are the way for me!

Erika July 18, 2010 - 5:16 PM

With brown sugar, it depends on the label. If it’s merely bleached sugar and molasses, it will more than likely say so on the label.

If the sugar is brown naturally, it just means it hasn’t been bleached. This is a marketing ploy. It’s still processed, and the fiber has still been removed.

People keep asking me about “sugar options” but I’m screaming out “the context of the sugar – meaning, WITH FIBER? OR WITHOUT FIBER? – is what matters.” Seriously. I made an apple and cranberry cobbler for the 4th of July with TWO TABLESPOONS of sugar. Why? Because the cranberries were sweet enough to sustain that desire for sugar. You MUST find a workaround.

By saying you want “raw sugar,” you basically are talking in circles and falling for SOMEBODY’s amazing marketing. Sure, it might not be bleached, but it is still sugar without fiber… and it still is too much. Seriously. Yeah, you don’t want the sugar you DO use to be super duper processed… but why are we using so much to begin with?

Mo January 1, 2012 - 3:33 PM

HELP! =)

First off THANK YOU SO MUCH for your passion and your choice to educate others about what you have learned. I can stay on this site ALL DAY reading posts and learning from your journey. Kudos to you for doing all you do simply out of love, and we love you back for it!

Now on to my question…
Based on the information you have provided here, and some of my own understandings of how various foods are processed in the body I have cut out almost everything with added sugar and am now eating foods as close to their natural state as possible. I’ve lost 40 pounds so far!

The ONLY vice I have at this point is…my morning coffee. It is my last indulgence. I really do my best to avoid artificial sweeteners and chemicals so I have been using either Sucanat or the “Sugar in the Raw” (never more than about 2 tsp). I am a vegetarian, but very conscious of watching my carbohydrate intake so I usually have my highest carb meal of the day at breakfast (with my coffee) and this includes complex as well as a small amount of simple carbs (typically in the form of fruit) with ample fiber to provide me energy for my mid-morning workout.

Is it helpful for me to have that minimal amount of sugar with a high fiber meal to lessen any possible negative effects of said sugar or does the sugar itself HAVE to be in the form of a whole food for the fiber to reduce the insulin response?

I am really trying to use less and less sugar but I still want to enjoy my coffee! If this strategy helps I won’t worry so much about it, but if not then I’ll try to taper it off gradually 🙁

Thank you again Erika for this website. As a vegetarian here in the great state of Texas, I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall when talking to others about their food choices. You are truly an inspiration to me each and everyday!

Peace and Blessings,

Erika Nicole Kendall January 2, 2012 - 10:01 AM

Coffee is… a particular kind of beast. If you’re using a good, quality coffee then you shouldn’t need two teaspoons of sugar. That’s a LOT (to me.) If you “need” coffee, you should really look into what’s preventing you from “waking up” every morning, because caffeine shouldn’t be what’s doing that for you.

The problem is sugar outside of the confines of fiber. That’d include coffee. So… you’ve got to make the choices that are best for you.

Stephanie July 18, 2010 - 10:05 PM

Thanks for your post. It was very informative.

I just wanted to comment briefly on the statement made that the fiber in sugarcane “protects” your teeth. I only feel compelled to do so from a patient education standpoint (I’m a dental student at Michigan) only because I’ve seen many cases of rampant tooth decay that could be avoided by simply educating the patient about the types of food they eat/snack on.

That sugar cane is “better” for you teeth than granulated/table sugar is a misconception which I wanted to clarify. The presence of sucrose alone in sugar cane is enough to cause decay in teeth. It’s similar to the misconception that many parents have that diluting the juice in a sippy cup will be “better” for the child’s teeth. Which it is not (especially if the child is sipping all day long).

Bacteria in your mouth only need the presence of sugar in order to cause decay. In populations where sugarcane is frequently eaten the decay rate is much higher than in populations where sugar is very low to non-existent in the diet (see link below).

While the sugarcane has more bulk to it and thus less calories (as compared to eating an equal weight of granulated sugar), it will not protect the teeth.

As always, thank you for your posts. I love your blog.


Erika July 18, 2010 - 10:11 PM

Stephanie, thank you for the insight! I do want to clarify, though, since it seems as though my statement was misunderstood. If you look at the excerpt that explains about sugar cane being 11% sucrose and 13% fiber with the rest being water… no one is eating an entire sugar cane. Your jaw is going to get tired before anything else. LOL

The idea that fiber “protects” your teeth was figurative, not literal. I’ll edit the post so that it reflects that a little bit better. I’d hate for anyone to get the wrong idea, there. 🙂

ConsumerFreedom July 22, 2010 - 9:18 AM

[author edited] I am not quite sure how your argument about sugar cane somehow damns high fructose corn syrup. Pointing the finger at one sugar (over another with equal calories) doesn’t help anyone lead a healthier life.

Erika July 22, 2010 - 9:46 AM

You aren’t quite sure because you DO NOT READ, Mister Center for Consumer Freedom, “front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco and other industries. It runs media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them “the Nanny Culture — the growing fraternity of food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists, and meddling bureaucrats who ‘know what’s best for you.'”

CCF is registered as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization under the IRS code 501(c)(3). Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries.[source]

See the following:

That’s the problem with sugar. In most cases – the way it’s used often results in there being very little to blunt the impact of the sugar on your system, thus resulting in it having the same effect as an overabundance of high fructose corn syrup in your daily diet. I won’t even get on the affects that an abundance of high fructose corn syrup, an abundance of sugar and a lack of fiber can have on our appearance. The difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup is simply that high fructose corn syrup is in almost every processed food item, and almost every processed food item is devoid of fiber.

The problem with sugar is the lack of fiber that often accompanies it. The problem with HFCS is that it is in the majority of processed foods. The problem, then, becomes the fact that a diet consisting solely of processed foods… means that you cannot escape the “sugar without fiber” situation.

The “natural sugar” mentioned here is NOT sugar cane. It is sugar IN FRUIT… where it is already paired with fiber.

Please… just stay off my blog. Greatly appreciated. 🙂

Windy Daley December 10, 2011 - 5:14 PM

Ericka, you are wonderful! As a health teacher, I applaud your reply to Consumer Freedom–an organization that would have all of us addicted to cigarettes, high fructose corn syrup, and fast food. Your blog is great! Keep it up!
And thank you for helping to keep alive the awakening health consciousness of the American public.

Tiffany February 16, 2012 - 6:44 PM

Ericka, thank you so much for all you do. But, i have a question….what about Stevia or Xylitol? I am making changes in 2012!! 🙂 I’m truly a black girl NEEDING to loose the weight so I will be healthy….

Erika Nicole Kendall February 17, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Real, actual stevia leaves? Yes. Xylitol? Sugar alcohols aren’t clean. I can’t speak on those.

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