Chef Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says....

What Not To Eat: High Fructose Corn Syrup Edition

A bowl of cereal garnished with blueberries. Children's cereals often contain HFCS.

The issue of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can really get people riled up. At virtually every single talk that I give, someone in the audience asks about it. Something seemingly simple like, "What about high fructose corn syrup?"

Should you care?

I think you should, but not for the reasons put forth on myriad blogs that demonize this sweetener as being responsible for the obesity epidemic, diabetes, hyperactivity and numerous other maladies. While there is some evidence that the higher levels of fructose may be of concern, I don't see that research as being conclusive. My reading of the literature at this time does point to some very worrisome issues that implicate all added sweeteners as being a major contributor to obesity.

You should care because the fact is that HFCS is a sweetener that is cheap and easy for food manufacturers to use and they add it to so many foods. A lot of foods that you might not even realize, such as dressings and sauces at restaurants, cereals, yogurts, breads, and even some organic foods (yes, there are actually organic versions of HFCS).

Should you purchase foods that contain HFCS?

I think you should avoid them - but again, not for the reasons you might think. While HFCS could be considered less healthy than sugar, the fact is that you are better off purchasing foods that don't have any added sugars. Simple as that. Given that high fructose corn syrup is added sugar, it's best to choose another product without it (or any other added sugars).

In my lectures I like to use the analogy of tumor markers in medicine. We will often look for certain markers in the blood that can indirectly help either diagnose or monitor cancers. Think of HFCS and other sugars as a "marker" of bad food, as it is highly processed, chemical laden foods that will contain added sweeteners. The take home message here is that if a food contains High Fructose Corn Syrup, it's likely one you don't want to eat and can find a better alternative for.

I don't believe that this is something to be fanatical about, however. If there is a product that you like and it contains HFCS, that's OK, but you might want to start looking for other options that you like just as well but don't contain HFCS. Also, check the total sugar content and try to keep the number of grams of sugar as low as possible. While I do believe that HFCS is not the best choice, I do also believe that simply trying to choose ingredients that are lower in total sugar is something that is far more important to focus on.

The bottom line is that selecting less processed foods, with lower amounts of all sugars is key to being healthier.