If you keep up with health news, you probably know to look out for added sugar in your diet -- a major culprit in the growing rates of obesity, diabetes and associated conditions like fatty liver disease. And if you know about added sugar, you probably also know that -- excuse the bastardized Shakespeare -- sugar by any other name tastes just as sweet. That's because it is -- any sugar or full calorie sweetener affects the body in the same way. Some formulations just have a worse reputation.
That's the case with the ubiquitous industrial sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, which holds a particularly villainous place in the public imagination. We learned as much when we compiled a list of surprising foods that contained high fructose corn syrup here at HuffPost Healthy Living. In fact, high fructose corn syrup has been so maligned that the Corn Refiners Association famously (and unsuccessfully) petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change its common name to "corn sugar." And while high fructose corn syrup can have a disastrous effect on our diets, the research doesn't support the idea that it is inherently worse than any other sugar. When it comes to high fructose corn syrup, the jury is still out.
One Princeton rat study found that HFCS, as it is known, causes more weight gain than sucrose in the same amount. But criticism of the study design left the finding in doubt. And to date, no one has conducted a meta-analysis of all the high fructose corn syrup studies to determine any patterns, according to one of the sweetener's foremost researchers.
"Bloggers have demonized it, an awful lot of companies have stopped using it, advertising 'we use natural sugar now,'" said Dr. Barry Popkin, the W. R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health and the author of one of the first studies to call high fructose corn syrup into question. "Even though we now know that all sugars have approximately half fructose and it's the unique properties of fructose that have an effect on our body."
As Popkin explains, it's the amount of sugar that is deeply troubling. He says that high fructose corn syrup has a trivial amount more fructose than other sugars, but that the metabolic effects of the sweetener are the same.
Dr. Robert Post, executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, agrees: "When it comes to added sugar, the importance for nutrition is a concern over calories," he tells HuffPost Healthy Living. "Someone who believes that honey is a better choice than cane sugar or corn syrup [is overlooking] the fact that they're both metabolized as sugar."
But Popkin explains that the growing number of names for sugar has the effect of confusing us about sugar amounts. That's because, by adding several different types of sugar, companies can list each sweetener lower on its list of ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order based on weight so that the first ingredient has the highest weight, which usually means it is the most prevalent. While sugar might rightly be the first ingredient on a package if it was all added as one formulation (say, cane sugar), by adding several different formulations of sugar, each will appear lower on the ingredient list -- making the product seem less sugary than it is. If consumers are looking for one particular name, like corn syrup, it's possible to swap in a different type of sugar without actually reducing the overall sugar amount.
And, according to Popkin's latest research, he told HuffPost, most foods are sugary. In fact, of the 85,451 unique commercially available foods that were available for purchase between 2005 and 2009, 75 percent contain added sweeteners.
So what can you do? Post recommends using the USDA Supertracker to compare grocery items for added sugar and calories from sugar. But if you're already in the grocery aisle, your best defense is education. It's time to learn all the names for sugar. There are great databases available, but we've compiled some common synonyms to help you get started.
How do you combat the insidious addition of sugar?
This is often named by the actual fruit, such as apple or pear. As Popkin explained, China's apple crop has emerged and overtaken Caribbean cane sugar as a popular imported source of sugar in consumer goods. Because fruit has lower and fewer tariffs than sugar, it's cheaper to import, he says. What's more, 'concentrated fruit juice' sounds healthier and more natural than high fructose corn syrup or other sugar syrups. "It's still all sugar," Popkin says.
Dextrose is a simple form of glucose, but as WiseGeek explains, many manufacturers believe that fewer consumers have negative associations with dextrose than with glucose.
Maltose -- also called malt sugar -- is a type of sugar made from two bonded glucose molecules. High Maltose Corn Syrup is another common sweetener -- simply the result of processing corn in a different way.
Crystalline fructose is fructose derived from corn, though it is thought to be about 20 percent sweeter than sugar and 5 percent sweeter than high-fructose corn syrup.
Evaporated cane juice is simply a differently processed sugar, according to Dr. Melina Jampolis. "It is less processed so it retains trace vitamins and minerals but has the same amount of calories as sugar," she told Glamour.
Invert sugar -- also known as inverted sugar syrup -- is similar to honey, maple syrup and high fructose corn syrup, in that it is simply sucrose (table sugar) that has been separated into its composite parts: glucose and fructose. It has a longer shelf life than crystal sugar and is sweeter as well.
When sugar is minimally processed and retains some of the molasses that is a natural byproduct of rendering sugar cane into sugar crystals, it is referred to as "raw." That might make it more natural than chemically treated sweeteners, but it doesn't mean it is actually raw or untreated. And as Cathy Nonas, director of obesity and diabetes programs at New York City's North General Hospital told ABC News: "Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's particularly healthy for you."
This sweetener is most often made from barley grains, that have been malted -- or transformed into the sugar, maltose.
"Cane crystals" is just a synonym for evaporated cane sugar.
Fructose is sugar found in fruit. It is the sweetest component of commercially available sugars and, in high concentrations and high amounts, it's what researchers like Robert Lustig -- a pediatric endocrinologist at University of California, San Francisco and an expert on the metabolic effects of sugar -- believe is responsible for contributing to obesity, diabetes and more.