A listener recently asked me to look into an ingredient called glucose syrup. It’s often used as a sweetener in processed foods, such as cookies, candy, and other confections. She’d read that it’s a very concentrated source of sugar that supposedly contains four times the sugar and calories per tablespoon as regular table sugar. The implication? That one should avoid foods made with glucose syrup.
I tracked this specific claim to an article written by a dietitian for Healthline.com. This is a site that I consider to be a very reliable source. In general, I’ve found their nutrition articles to be thorough, accurate, and very well-referenced.
And sure enough, the statement that glucose syrup contains four times the sugar and calories found in regular sugar was footnoted and linked to the USDA’s food and nutrient database, the gold standard for nutrient data.
One footnote linked to the nutritional analysis for light corn syrup (which is another name for glucose syrup). One tablespoon contains 17 grams of sugar and 62 calories. The other footnote linked to the nutritional analysis for regular table sugar. One tablespoon contains 4 grams of sugar and 16 calories. Case closed.
Actually, make that: Case overturned on appeal. Unfortunately, this second listing was inaccurate.
You see, in addition to the tens of thousands of foods that have been analyzed by the USDA to create their amazing food and nutrient database, they also include nutrient information for tens of thousands of additional packaged and processed foods based on information provided by the manufacturer. And there are frequent errors. In fact, there’s a disclaimer right on the page Healthline cited stating that the info was provided by food brand owners, who are responsible for descriptions, nutrient data, and ingredient information.
In this case, it was a simple typo. The manufacturer chose the wrong serving size. The nutrient info they uploaded (4 grams of sugar, 16 calories) was for a teaspoon of sugar, not a tablespoon. And for those of you who don’t bake or use metric measures, a tablespoon contains 3 teaspoons.
A tablespoon of corn syrup does not contain four times as many calories as a tablespoon of sugar. It’s actually about a third higher—17 grams of sugar versus 12 grams. And this is simply due to the fact that sugar crystals aren’t as dense as sugar syrup, something that manufacturers adjust for in their recipes.
What matters is how many grams of sugar end up in each serving of the finished product, something that’s disclosed (usually accurately) on the Nutrition Facts label.
If you’re concerned about the sugar or calorie content of a packaged food, it doesn’t matter how many tablespoons of an ingredient were added to the recipe. What matters is how many grams of sugar end up in each serving of the finished product, something that’s disclosed (usually accurately) on the Nutrition Facts label.
Mistakes happen, so I sent an email to the dietitian who wrote the article alerting her to the error.
Here’s a quick tip for anyone using the USDA’s database to look up nutrient info.
You can filter the listings so that they don’t show the manufacturer-provided listings. (The USDA data isn’t perfect but it’s generally more complete and reliable than the manufacturer-supplied data. )
But I still have one problem with this article on corn (or glucose) syrup. The author goes on to say “Consuming glucose syrup regularly may increase your risk of obesity, high blood sugar, poor dental health, high blood pressure, and heart disease.” And once again, she includes citations, this time to articles published in medical journals. But these articles are not about corn syrup, per se. They refer to added sugars, in general. The claim that consuming glucose syrup may lead to health problems, while technically true, is misleading.
It’s not the type of sugar that matters, it’s the quantity.
There’s nothing special about glucose syrup that makes it more damaging than regular sugar. When it comes to negative impacts on our health—whether short- or long-term—it’s not the type of sugar that matters, it’s the quantity.
Some of us have come to believe that sugar in any quantity is toxic. But actually, when consumed in moderate amounts, added sugars do not increase the risk of disease. Health authorities recommend limiting your intake of added sugars to five percent of your total calories. That’s 25 to 30 grams per day. (The average American adult takes in three to four times that much.)
But if you’re limiting your added sugars to the recommended amount, it doesn’t matter whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, glucose syrup, or high fructose corn syrup. For that matter, it doesn’t matter whether it’s honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, or organic dehydrated cane juice.
What counts is the amount, not the source.
To sum up: The article—which suggests that foods made with glucose syrup are higher in sugar and calories and more damaging to your health than foods made with regular sugar—is simply false.
The first claim (that glucose syrup contains four times as many calories) looks to be an innocent mistake—and one that I hope will eventually be corrected. The second claim (that glucose syrup is uniquely damaging to health) feels more baseless.
There are some things to beware of when you’re trying to eat healthy. The idea that glucose syrup is worse than sugar isn’t one of them.