It happens every year around this time. You pull out the recipe for Grandma's famous pecan pie or Aunt Sally's salty caramels, zero in on the ingredients list, and there it is: corn syrup.
Plenty of dessert recipes—especially old-fashioned holiday ones—seem to call for the stuff. But if you're like most health-minded eaters, the ingredient might make you a little nervous. After all, it sounds so…processed. Wouldn't it be better to use a more natural liquid sweetener instead?
Sure, corn syrup—which is derived from cornstarch—is processed. But so are all the other sweeteners that most of us bake with. "Processed is a bit of a loaded descriptor. A lot of processing is to clean things up. So of course, all of these compounds are processed to a certain extent," says University of Minnesota food science and nutrition professor Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD.
What about the fact that corn syrup is just empty calories? Sorry, that's basically true for things like maple syrup or honey, too. Though these so-called natural sweeteners do contain some nutrients, the amount is so small that it's virtually meaningless. For instance, you'll get just 1% of your daily iron or calcium from a tablespoon of maple syrup.
What's more, your body doesn't really care what sweetener you add to that pie or cookie dough. It just doesn't want you to overdo it. (Beat your sugar addiction with these tips.) "People get hung up on the type of sugar they're consuming and forget that the body's insulin response to all sugars is essentially the same," says registered dietician Sarah Pflugradt. "From a nutritional standpoint, sugar is sugar, regardless of where it comes from in the diet. And it needs to be limited."
In other words? The issue isn't so much whether you use maple syrup, or corn syrup, or table sugar in your fruitcake. It's whether you enjoy one small slice as a treat, or devour half the cake in one sitting and chase it down with a cloying hot chocolate. The former is fine. But the latter is not.
So if you have a favorite recipe that calls for corn syrup, go ahead and use it, Pflugradt says. (If you're concerned about GMOs, pick an organic, non-GMO corn syrup, like this one from Wholesome Sweeteners.) Swapping it out won't actually do you any good, and anyway, there's a good chance that it'll mess with the flavor or consistency.
Then, help yourself to a piece of that delicious pie and enjoy it without the guilt. Grandma and Aunt Sally would be proud.
This article was originally published by our partnerst at Prevention.
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