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But they're both sugary and delicious!
June 16, 2008 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Understanding that both are bad for you, which one is worse: high-fructose corn syrup or aspartame?
posted by pised to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
AFAIK, aspartame has only been found dangerous in high doses and hasn't been proven to be dangerous in normal consumption.
posted by reebear at 9:21 AM on June 16, 2008


If you're diabetic, as am I, I think it's fairly safe to say the HFCS is worse. For a phenylketonuric, the aspartame must be avoided. For someone who is both, or neither, I'm not really sure.
posted by owtytrof at 9:22 AM on June 16, 2008


Careful with that one, evidence that aspartame is bad for you is incredibly spotty and sparse but, as with anything, if you repeat it enough it becomes true. It does make my tummy hurt though.

HFCS seems to have a lot more evidence backing the idea that it isn't the best stuff for you.
posted by Cosine at 9:26 AM on June 16, 2008


I think volume is key to this question. I'm guessing you wouldn't consume as much aspartame as you would HFCS.

I mean, as bad as HFCS is I would rather eat a gallon of that than a gallon of pure aspartame.
posted by ian1977 at 9:28 AM on June 16, 2008


They're bad for you in very different ways. It's like asking "Which is worse, guns or uranium?"
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:31 AM on June 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


I assume you've read the wikipedia entries on these as they're actually pretty helpful. But i'll give my own short synopsis here:

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad in that it's a whole lot of calories and it also causes a huge sugar rush/crash. It is a sugar product and has all the negative (and positive) effects of consuming sugar. It is still being debated whether HFCS is better/worse for you than other types of sugars. You can read the wikipedia entry to find links to those studies.

Aspartame is also being debated (wikipedia) as far as health concerns go. Some studies have shown adverse short term effects, and adverse long term effects, and some have shown no adverse effects at all. Aspartame does have an advantage over HFCS in that it doesn't have any calories.

I prefer items sweetened with sucralose/splenda which so far at leas
t has been considered "safe" by most standards and also has no calories.

On preview: reebear: some studies have shown an increased level of cancer in rats using low doses of aspartame over long periods of time (reading the wikipedia entry we both linked). So it's not only high doses of aspartame that they've associated with health problems. I was also under the impression that heath problems were associated with high doses only, but I guess we were wrong.
posted by escher at 9:37 AM on June 16, 2008


Claims of significant health effects for aspartame are all very weakly supported. As far as I know, the only line of evidence that hasn't been shown wrong is a recent one that says that rats who are fed aspartame actually gain weight compared to those who aren't (because, it's conjectured, having something so sweet which has no calories throws off the body's ability to estimate the calories it's taking in). I don't know how that effect would compare to the negative health effects of HFCS, though.
posted by abcde at 9:37 AM on June 16, 2008


IMO (not a nutritionist, but a scientist who has read a bit of the literature), if we were talking about soda for example, given the amounts of soda that an average person consumes, i would say that HFCS is worse. I drink diet myself (even when pregnant).
posted by gaspode at 9:38 AM on June 16, 2008


The aspartame issue reminds me of the cellphone radiation issue -- the science is all over the place.

HFCS is, in the end, just high fructose corn syrup. It's a known quantity and thus you can generally limit and control its unhealthy qualities.

Tough to control the unhealthy qualities of something that might be carcinogenic, tho.
posted by tachikaze at 9:39 AM on June 16, 2008


I would say HFCS, if not chemically then in terms of ubiquitousness. That shit is everywhere and in damn near everything. From personal experience, I can tell you that cutting it out of my diet completely was one of the best health calls I ever made - I started feeling better all around once I stopped ingesting that poison.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:39 AM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, I *hope* it's HFCS, because that's the choice I made. Diabetes runs in my family, and I'm trying to postpone the inevitable for a long as possible. Hence I really try to limit the sugar (with some moderate success). In large quantities aspartame is a headache trigger for myself, but in moderation I can handle it. The splenda alternatives are few and far between, at least when it comes to diet colas. And who's to say they're really any better, anyway? Plus, I heart sugar free redbull. (which is probably bad for me in other ways, but that's the choice I've made.)
posted by cgg at 9:47 AM on June 16, 2008


I would say hfcs is worse for you but the problem is that its mostly in unhealthy things anyway so cutting it out might not help o nsaying how bad it is for you because you are also cutting out the bad stuff also.

I think i saw a recent study where aspartame might be used in the body as sugar, when they previously thought it wasnt.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:51 AM on June 16, 2008


Anecdata, but my girlfriend can have the smallest amount of aspartame and she will have an hours-long migraine. It's not psychosomatic, she was reeling from a migraine after a wedding party and it turns out the desert had been sugar free, which she didn't know when she ate it.

Not saying it's worse than HFCS, or HFCS is worse than it, but I feel compelled to mention when people say studies are inconclusive about it.
posted by Benjy at 10:04 AM on June 16, 2008


Most of the problem with HFCS is the extra calories. A lot of extra calories in places where you wouldn't expect them. Most of the problem with aspartame is the potential long-term cancer risk. I think the main variable is the amount you consume:

If you drink a few cans of soda a week, it probably doesn't matter either way.

If you drink several cans a day: with HFCS, you WILL consume extra calories and probably gain weight and experience the associated problems. With aspartame, you MIGHT increase your risk of cancer many years down the line, and MIGHT put your metabolism out of whack. Also, diet soda is actually more acidic and corrosive to your teeth than regular. (Some people also get headaches from aspartame, but you'd probably notice that and stop ingesting it quite quickly.)

So, it's a matter of short-term extra calories vs potential increased long-term risks. Personally, I usually go for the diet (though prefer Splenda) since those risks are not well proven. But I drink a lot of soda these days, when I wasn't, I didn't care.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 10:20 AM on June 16, 2008


There is some indications that HFCS is linked with obesity. Introduce HFCS to a population and they start getting obese. I avoid it like the plague but it is in EVERYTHING: yogurt, chocolate milk, bread, you name it, they put it in. You can get some versions of sodas that have sugar not HFCS or aspartame, the so called "Mexican cola", which is probably better for you. I find the high end version of things - organic chocolate milk for example use sugar instead of HFCS.
posted by zia at 10:27 AM on June 16, 2008


I am a former chemist with biochemistry, cloning and physics training. I made it through a couple years of grad school and then dropped out to join the IT industry. Never really looked back, but read on for what I learned that applies to this question.

Anecdotal: My family sticks with either natural sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, sugar), natural sweetener alternatives (cinnamon, stevia) or just plain sugar (we prefer the unrefined varieties for taste, unless you're talking about specific kinds of baking that tend to be sensitive to non-white sugars) if at all possible. We've found this tends to reduce pre-diabetic issues, as well as finding that these sweeteners don't set of (my) bitter super taster issues or (her) digestive/metabolic/migraine issues.

Scientific: Most synthetic sweeteners are chemically altered (where atoms in molecules are chemically substituted - usually halogens for hydrogens) or synthesized (built from scratch in a series of chemical reactions).

One thing to know about these chemical reactions is that they are rarely 100%. Usually you get, in each reaction, a majority (hopefully) of the product you want, and a minority of what you don't. Part of the chemical/manufacturing process is, at each step, or at the end, trying to flush out the unreacted products or byproducts from each reaction. Even so, it's very rare that absolutely all of the unreacted products or byproducts are flushed out of the final product that ships.

So for any sweetener, you are probably dealing with at least small amounts of the chemicals required to actually make the synthetic sweetener. Depending on the synthetic path (i.e. the steps required to get from the raw materials to the sweetener you put in your coffee), more or less desirable byproducts could be involved in the stuff you find in the non-sugar packets.

Additionally, sucralose (not aspartame) is created by cholorinating sucrose. This is tricky to say anything bad about, but it does set my teeth on edge. We don't understand too well what happens when we take big, bioreactive molecules and stick halogens on them. In contrast to the hydrogens they used to be, the Chlorine atoms are a lot more reactive. We do know that chlorinated hydrocarbons like methane and ethane are toxic (i.e. carbon tetrachloride is toxic, while simple methane isn't, except by suffocation). It's hard to say what organochlorides do or do not do with our metabolic system.

In comparison, it sounds like HFCS uses enzymatic production methods. Which can be very high efficiency and which usually don't leave any byproducts except for mechanically, whatever original materials the enzymes don't process. The badness here that my household worries about is mostly confined to the refined-sugar-is-bad-for-you-because-you-weren't-meant-to-eat-so-much camp of issues.

Opinion: Similarly, aspartame also bothers me. It's an organically active molecule that we don't clearly understand. The debate that rages on Wikipedia and in other communities gives me pause and on top of that, I just don't like the taste.

But overall, I don't know which is worse. I will definitely occasionally have HFCS but I won't touch aspartame, but that's mostly a bitter super taster issue for me.
posted by kalessin at 10:34 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


High fructose corn syrup is much, much worse for you than Aspartame or other artificial sweeteners. First, let's define the risks. With high fructose corn syrup (and its huge caloric load), you're looking at weight gain and (potentially) type II diabetes. With artificial sweeteners, the primary concern appears to be cancer. According to the CDC, the incidence of the top ten cancers in the United States (2004) was 374.7 per 100,000 people. Also according to the CDC, the incidence of new Type II Diabetes Mellitus in 2004 was between 700-800 per 100,000 people in the US. So already, you're more than twice as likely to get type II DM than you are of getting any one of the top ten cancers. Keep that in mind for later.

One of the facts you have to be cognizant of when you're comparing high fructose corn syrup to artificial sweeteners is amounts. A 330 mL can of Coke contains 36.3 grams of sugar (22 g of sugar per 200 mL of soda = 36.3 g per 330 mL). So, how much Aspartame is contained in most diet sodas? According to the Mayo Clinic, you'll get 50 mg of Aspartame in 18-19 diet sodas. Converted to a single soda value, that's about 2.8 mg of Aspartame per soda.

So lets summarize:
1 can of diet soda = about 2.8 mg of Aspartame
1 can of regular soda = 36,300 mg of sugar (most from high fructose corn syrup)

That's more than a 10,000X difference! (which also part of the explanation of why regular coke leaves a sticky residue when it dries but diet coke does not... but that's for a different question)

Okay, but sheer amounts don't really tell the whole story because that would assume that both substances have the same level of toxicity, which they don't. So let's turn to a review article written by the good Drs. Weihrauch and Diehl for the Annals of Oncology. In it, they make the claim that there is no real evidence that artificial sweeteners (specifically Aspartame) are carcinogenic. They say that multiple case-controlled studies show a relative risk for getting cancer of 1.3 for heavy consumption of artificial sweeteners. So a 1.3X increased risk when consuming more than 1,700 mg of Aspartame per day (or 607 cans of diet soda each day).

Bottom line, drink diet soda. Don't worry about the aspartame so much. And if you're worried about cancer, don't smoke and wear sun block. :-)
posted by Osrinith at 10:52 AM on June 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


HFCS - we know it is bad, but not really how bad, although it probably is worse than just the calories. It seems like it causes larger blood sugar swings than regular sugar. That can make you hungry later which can make you fat. In moderation it probably is fine, but given how many different foods have it moderation can be difficult.

Equal - The stuff seems pretty safe. Most of the negative reports are anecdotal, not scientific studies.

Splenda - Probably the safest of the artificial sweeteners. It was studied to death prior to getting FDA approval. Also, it is heat resistant so you can cook with it.

Stevia - I don't know that much about it, but it is quite popular in all these sweetener threads. It bears at least some research if you are seeking an alternative.

Miracle fruit - expensive and rare, but has interesting possibilities.
posted by caddis at 11:01 AM on June 16, 2008


Most synthetic sweeteners are chemically altered (where atoms in molecules are chemically substituted - usually halogens for hydrogens) or synthesized (built from scratch in a series of chemical reactions).

Just to get some facts on the table: aspartame is a dipeptide made up of one aspartic acid and one phenylalanine.

In other words, it's a very small custom protein. Our bodies are very good at coping with and breaking down protein.
posted by Class Goat at 12:43 PM on June 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I still feel that not enough is known about "fake" molecules like aspartame. We don't really know what the long-term human effects are, so I stick with natural sugars where I know that if I overindulge I'll get fat and get diabetes. I know this is dreadfully oversimplified, but the question I ask myself is:

"Would I rather die of a heart attack or of cancer?"
posted by GardenGal at 2:08 PM on June 16, 2008


or you could just stop with the sodas and drink water. it's not one of the choices in the question, but it is the healthiest choice, and I was never much good staying within the lines anyway.
posted by caddis at 2:40 PM on June 16, 2008


Another piece of anecdotal evidence (and please keep in mind that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"): since I cut HFCS out of my diet entirely I've found I have a simply amazing amount more energy. If I have a single serving of something with HFCS (a soda, say), I get incredibly tired and "zoned" within about fifteen minutes. Though I don't have it all that often, the same doesn't happen with artificial sweeteners (nor with natural ones).

I'd love to know if there's some science behind this or if I'm just making it up.
posted by jacobian at 9:00 PM on June 16, 2008


I'd love to know if there's some science behind this or if I'm just making it up

TMK, the fructose in HFCS has to make a special metabolic trip through the duodenum (or whatever that thing is) then through the liver to get processed into triglycerides and/or glucose. (as you can tell, I am not a biochemist) but that's my understanding -- metabolizing a good amount of HFCS is a PITA for our systems. . . . I've read that we're built to handle fructose in 50g increments, no more.
posted by tachikaze at 9:42 PM on June 16, 2008


Assuming that Stevia is safe (and that's an if, since it's generally harder to get tests on something that's an herb) it is a good alternative to artificial sweeteners. I know a lot of people complained about the taste a couple of years ago, but a lot of the packet varieties are really good now (and I personally don't really mind the taste of the powdered leaves either). It's definitely very sweet and will at very least take care of your need for "sugar" of some sort.

The fact that it is not approved by the FDA (and thus, bizarrely, has to be marketed as an herbal supplement rather than a sweetener) has kept it out of a lot of foods that would otherwise probably go for it. I'm pretty sure Coke or Pepsi would jump at the chance of marketing an "all natural, calorie free soda".
posted by Deathalicious at 9:43 PM on June 16, 2008


And if you're worried about cancer, don't smoke and wear sun block

Sun block has apparently been shown to NOT prevent melanoma. The opposite, in fact.
posted by tachikaze at 9:45 PM on June 16, 2008


I'm pretty sure Coke or Pepsi would jump at the chance of marketing an "all natural, calorie free soda".

There is/was a Stevia-flavored water drink in Japan, plus apparently Diet Coke!
posted by tachikaze at 9:53 PM on June 16, 2008


I would take the corn syrup any day!! No aspartame for me thanks. Plus it tastes like shit anyway.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:50 PM on June 16, 2008


Sun block has apparently been shown to NOT prevent melanoma. The opposite, in fact.
posted by tachikaze


Uh.... what? Link please? Speaking as someone who is high-risk, I'd like to know....
posted by GardenGal at 6:36 AM on June 17, 2008


From what i know, HFCS also has stuff in it that turns off appetite suppressors. What this means is the more of you eat, the less likely you are to feel full, because it's turning off stuff in your head that tells your body you're full.

A good example of this is why people are able to drink tons and tons of soda at a time.
posted by soss at 9:29 AM on June 17, 2008


Sun block has apparently been shown to NOT prevent melanoma. The opposite, in fact.

I doubt this, maybe you could clarify. Correlation with incidence in an unrepresentative sample (i.e. - sun worshipers are more likely to use more sunblock and get more cases of melanoma) is what I'm picturing Newsweek or somebody running with to write yet another unfounded, alarmist "science news" article.
posted by doppleradar at 7:40 PM on June 24, 2008


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