Kate Neeley, contributing writer

YOU’VE LIKELY SEEN the labels. They’re on your cereal, bread, jams, sauces, and more. They say, “NO HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP.” Is that supposed to be some type of warning? You may have read the hype online or found yourself in a conversation with your health conscious friend disparaging this type of sweetener.

What is high fructose corn syrup? Is it worse than other types of sugar? Is it better to purchase foods that have been sweetened by honey, cane sugar, or maple syrup? Three local nutrition experts shed some light on this topic.

Sugar vs Added Sugar: There’s a Difference

When it comes to things like table sugar, honey, and high fructose corn syrup, it’s added sugar. Can all these types of added sweeteners be lumped together? According to Megan Ostler, registered dietitian (RDN) and director of nutrition for iFit, they can. “Chemically, they’re pretty much the same. They’re all made up of glucose and fructose in similar amounts,” she said. If you’re going to consume added sugar, it makes little difference which kind you choose.

Why do food labels point out that there’s no high fructose corn syrup in them? “It’s a marketing ploy that makes it seem like the healthier option,” Ginger Neeley, RDN, said. If you read the label, you will find one of a number of other sweeteners instead. According to Ginger, sweeteners are very common in processed foods.

It’s important to know there is a difference between naturally occurring sugars in food and sweeteners that are added. A little bit of added sugar is fine as part of a healthy diet, but the reason to limit it is because of its “low nutrient density and high caloric content,” said Registered Dietitian Rachel Rood.

Sugar (Not Added Sugar) is a Necessary Nutrient

From a nutritional standpoint, sugar is a necessary nutrient. “Sugar is ‘the currency’ our bodies use to fuel brain and muscle function. It occurs naturally in almost all foods, including vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy products,” Megan said.

Eating an apple, sweet potato, or wholegrain bread provides sugar in the form of complex carbohydrates as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber that benefit the health and function of your brain and body. Added sugar is tasty, but nutritionally, it is only added calories that aren’t beneficial to overall health.

Is Cutting Carbs a Good Idea?

One of the elements in trendy diets lately is the idea of ‘cutting carbs,’ meaning to remove the foods high in carbohydrates or natural sugars, often grains. Is this really a good idea? “No, unless you need to for dietary reasons” like gluten-intolerance or food allergies, according to Megan.

Generally speaking, of kicking grains out of a healthy diet, Megan goes on to explain why it isn’t recommended. “There’s not really much of a benefit because they (grains) are such a great nutrient-dense package and supply your body with vitamins, minerals, soluble fiber, and are a great energy source.”

The Sweet News

Is it OK to eat sweet foods because they taste good? Of course it is. Rachel Rood of Positive Change Nutrition and Avalon Hills works to foster healthy habits and mindsets about eating. “It all comes down to moderation. If you categorize foods as ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods,’ it sets you up to be too restrictive in your eating, and then overindulge. It creates a sort of feast or famine approach to food,” she said.

Rachel has spent a great deal of time helping people who are working to overcome eating disorders and seek increased health. “I like the 80/20 approach where about 80% of your food intake is nutrient-dense, and about 20% can be more of the fun foods that you enjoy,” she said.

The sweetest part? Local grocery stores supply an incredible amount of colorful and nutritious food unprecedented in history, so you can enjoy all the wonderful foods year-round. If a little bit of high fructose corn syrup is a part of that, you’re going to be just fine.