At the recent Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, Calif., I was amazed by how many companies promoted new products on the basis of not containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

At the recent Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, Calif., I was amazed by how many companies promoted new products on the basis of not containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I managed to converse with a few company representatives about their deliberate omission of HFCS; and the stories they could tell…none of which were based on sound science. (My favorite, but also the most pathetic, was the baby food manufacturer who said that studies have shown HFCS stunts growth.)

Here are the facts. Sucrose (table sugar) and HFCS have the same number of calories as most carbohydrates; both contribute 4 calories per gram. They are also equal in sweetness and contain nearly the same 1:1 ratio of two sugars - fructose and glucose. Sugar is a 50-50 blend; while HFCS typically comes in two blends: 42% and 55% fructose. The balance is made up primarily of glucose with a few other natural sugars. Further, once these sugars are absorbed into the blood stream, research shows that they appear to be metabolized similarly in the body.

In terms of chemical structure, yes, there are some differences. This is why they have different names. The two differ by how the sugars bond. Table sugar is a disaccharide, in which fructose and glucose are linked by a chemical bond; whereas, the fructose and glucose in HFCS are not bonded. In other words, they are free sugars. The other obvious difference is that HFCS, as the name suggests, comes from corn, and sucrose comes from sugar cane and beet sugar plants.

Functionally they differ in product applications, with HFCS often providing benefits beyond sweetness, which is why so many manufacturers have used it in the past. For example, in yogurt, HFCS enhances flavors, rounds out tartness and even assists with water binding to prevent syneresis.

Data presented at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2010 meeting in Chicago shows that consuming fructose from added sugars at levels found in the average American diet does not lead to weight gain or an increased risk for heart disease when part of a weight-stable diet. The results mark the first time researchers measured the effects of added sugar consumption on various metabolic markers.

In this double-blind study, researchers followed 64 overweight and obese people who were placed on a weight-stable diet for 10 weeks. The diet incorporated sucrose or HFCS-sweetened low-fat milk, at 10% or 20% of calories, which represent the 25th and 50th percentile for adult fructose consumption levels (two to four times greater than AHA recommendations). After 10 weeks, there was no change in body weight in the entire group. In addition, there were no changes in total cholesterol, triglycerides, low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad cholesterol), apolipoprotein B (elevated levels of APO Protein B represent an increased risk for heart disease), or mean LDL particle size. Group assignment also had no effect on high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or good cholesterol).

The AHA recommends that women and men consume no more than 100 and 150 calories, respectively, of added sugars each day, which is the equivalent of about 25 and 38 grams per day. However, data show that more than 90% of Americans consume more than that amount with an average consumption rate of 345 calories of added sugar, or about 86 grams per day, with less than half coming from added fructose in any form. (In addition to being a component of sucrose and HFCS, fructose is available as a stand-alone sweetener.)

“Although this study is not license to overindulge, it does inform us that we can enjoy sugar in moderation as long as we are following a healthy lifestyle,” says James Rippe, a cardiologist and the study’s chief investigator. “That’s an important take-away for people like moms who may want to use added sweeteners to make healthy foods more attractive to their children.”

Rippe is right. Sweeteners make many foods more palatable for picky eaters. Sweeteners (with chocolate) make milk more appealing to school children.

Formulators have to remember that it’s the calories that count, not the sweeteners. And, not all sweeteners contribute calories. Consumer desire for sweet foods is not going to go away, but formulators can help by blending sweeteners to obtain the best sweetness with the fewest calories.

Many formulators are finding luck with stevia-based sweeteners. It’s been about two-and-a-half years since FDA first recognized the self-affirmed GRAS status of Stevia rebaudina plant extracts. Leaves from this plant, which is grown in Central and South America, have long been recognized as sweet.

Numerous ingredient companies are extracting the sweetest compound from the leaves, the steviol glycoside known as rebaudioside A (reb-A), which is non-cariogenic, contains no calories and has a zero glycemic index, making it safe and suitable for diabetics. FDA has not actually permitted the stevia plant itself to be used as a food ingredient, only the reb-A extract, and only ingredients that contain 95% or more pure reb-A. With reb-A being one of about a dozen sweet-tasting compounds in the stevia plant, suppliers are differentiating themselves by reb-A content, as up to 5% of a stevia-based sweetener can be something other than reb-A.

Another emerging option is monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, which FDA recognized as GRAS in 2010. Monk fruit has been used for its sweet taste and healthy qualities for hundreds of years. The small, vine-grown, subtropical fruit, which is indigenous to Southeast Asia, is packed with antioxidants and vitamins. The calorie-free sweetness of monk fruit is derived from unique natural antioxidants in the fruit called mogrosides. (See related story “What’s Luo Han Guo?”)

At Natural Products Expo West, the monk fruit sweetener supplier sampled a whey protein-based no-sugar-added orange cream smoothie. An 8-fluid-ounce serving contained 120 calories and 15 grams of sugar primarily from orange juice concentrate. Also at the show, the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., debuted Kashi Honey Sunshine cereal, which contains monk fruit and other sweeteners, including, as the name suggests, honey. The company touts the goodness of the product. No HFCS lambasting here.

What's Luo Han Guo?

Monk fruit, the translation for the Chinese luo han guo, is a fruit grown in Southeast Asia, which is now available in a concentrated form for zero-calorie, all-natural sweetening of all types of foods and beverages. The unique zero-calorie sweetness of monk fruit concentrate comes from naturally occurring compounds in the fruit that are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

In recent years, the monk fruit industry was industrialized with technological advancements in plant varieties, seedling cultivation, growing methods and fruit processing, creating a vertically integrated monk fruit supply chain. FDA’s no objection GRAS letter in 2010 was the final step in bringing monk fruit into mainstream America food formulating.

“Our consumer research in the [United] States shows that moms and their families want natural, healthy choices for everyday food and beverage items such as cereals, juice drinks and yogurts. The same research shows that moms trust fruit for healthy nutrition,” says the New Zealand-headquartered supplier with Chicago-based offices. “We have conducted extensive sensory profiling that shows our monk fruit concentrate possesses a clean taste profile without the off notes found in some other sweeteners. Further, this testing has also shown cost and taste benefits for blending monk fruit concentrate with other natural sweeteners such as those based on stevia.”