High-fructose corn syrup and fructooligosaccharides both derive from fructose, the little sugar that's hailed in its natural form in fruit and honey but villainized as a chemically produced added sugar. The origin and destination of fructose in these products are two totally different things. High-fructose corn syrup contains the manufactured version and is added to processed goods. Fructooligosaccharides, or FOS, are growing in popularity as a prebiotic fiber that may have helpful intestinal benefits. But before you buy supplements, you should know research on FOS is somewhat conflicted. FOS also occur naturally in foods you can buy at your supermarket.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is a combination of sugars, fructose and glucose. Foodmakers use different proportions, such as 42, 55 and 90 percent fructose, depending on whether it's for soft drinks, bread or other processed goods. HFCS has been implicated in the epidemics of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, liver disease and kidney disease. However, HFCS has dominated the added sugar market because it's cheap and can be used for several purposes besides sweetening. It preserves, helps yeast ferment, browns and stabilizes taste across different temperatures. Because it's gotten such a bad rap, however, manufacturers are slowly abandoning it. Sales slumped 11 percent between 2003 and 2008.
You might be seeing the term fructooligosaccharide show up more, along with new buzz terms like prebiotic. The root "oligo" means few, and saccharide means sugar, so quite literally FOS consist of a few chains of fructose molecules. FOS are starches that your body can't fully digest. Rather than provide you with calories, the undigested FOS in your food "feed" the bacteria in your gut. This makes it a prebiotic, which is not to be confused with probiotics, which are the bacteria themselves. You can eat FOS in whole foods, such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, onions, burdock, chicory, dandelion and soybeans.
Conflicts in Research on FOS
According to NYU's Langone Medical Center, the data on the benefits of FOS are conflicting. For example, the center cites studies on animals that demonstrated FOS improve cholesterol levels, but notes in humans, results are inconsistent. The most improvement shown has been about 5 percent, and the benefit may disappear after long-term use. Others have suggested that FOS prevent traveler's diarrhea, but NYU authorities suggest probiotics work better. In addition, the center reported in a study aimed at determining whether FOS helped with irritable bowel, the substance actually worsened the condition.
Likewise, controversies exist in research on HFCS. The makers of HFCS, often represented by the Corn Refiners Association, say research confuses people about the effects of pure fructose versus HFCS. They have also said researchers use much higher levels of HFCS than a person could ever realistically consume to prove their hypotheses. According to the American Medical Association, HFCS behaves a lot like regular sugar, so better-designed studies are needed to get to the bottom of things.
FOS are generally safe, states Langone Medical Center. But when you take it in supplements at doses higher than 15 grams, you could experience bloating, flatulence, and intestinal discomfort. Lactose-intolerant individuals may experience side effects even at low doses. There's no health benefit associated with HFCS, so it's unnecessary to consume it. Public health authorities, such as the American Heart Association, recommend that you limit all added sugars, including HFCS, in your daily diet, because of their effects on blood pressure. The association states that women shouldn't get more than 100 calories, or 25 grams of sugar, per day; men shouldn't get more than 150 calories from sugar.
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Fructo-oliogosaccharides
- Vermont Naturopathic Clinic: Carbohydrates and Dietary Fiber
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Potential Role Of Sugar (Fructose) in the Epidemic Of Hypertension, Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and Cardiovascular Disease; Richard J. Johnson, et al.; October 2007
- "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Consumption of High-Fructose Corn Syrup in Beverages May Play a Role in the Epidemic of Obesity; George A. Bray, et al.; April 2004