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Ask Dr. Gourmet

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup dangerous to your health?

Someone told me that High Fructose Corn Syrup in foods is as dangerous to your health as Arsenic (I found it in the bar-b-que sauce purchased at the health food store). I understand sugary cereals and cookies for children and too much processed foods for adults is bad for you, but how much ingestion of HFCS is safe to eat? (And why the heck is it on a label at the natural food store?)

Dr. Gourmet Says...

Cola in a glassI think that the health claims regarding High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) are overblown. Certainly it is not like arsenic.

There are, however, concerns about this sweetener. One of the mildest of claims is that the higher amount of fructose can be a problem that contributes to obesity by triggering the body to absorb and process foods differently. There are other claims such as the one your friend told you, but as well as others such as HFCS contains mercury and other chemicals. While these claims do have some basis in fact, there's not much science to back up what they mean.

The problem that we don't have the best science on this, in spite of the wide use of this product. The debate is very polarized between the food manufacturers and groups who believe that it is poison. I am not yet willing to say that it is radically dangerous, but at the same time I would actively avoid products that contain HFCS.

Here is what I am willing to say: Any product that contains high fructose corn syrup should be suspect. The presence of HFCS in a food is an indicator that it is the type of highly-processed, packaged foods that you shouldn't be eating. Make your own barbecue sauce using honey, granulated sugar or molasses. Stay away from soda and take all such packaged foods out of your life. Simply put: if the product has HFCS on the label in its ingredients list, put it back on the shelf.

That said, I also think that if the one of the top three ingredients in a food says "sugar" that you should also be suspect. While I don't see that granulated (table) sugar as carrying the same potential risk of HFCS, you don't want to be choosing products with lots of added sugars and thus added calories.

BTW, here's a recipe for one of my favorite barbecue sauces. It's easy to make.

Thanks for writing,

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet