Deciphering High Fructose Corn Syrup

by in Food News, February 25, 2009

You’ve heard that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you. You know to scan food labels to make sure it’s not there. And now some of the big beverage makers are nixing it from their products. So what’s the deal with this sweetener?

What the heck is it?
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) started making its name in the 1980s as a cheap alternative to sugar. Sugar is made from two subunits: glucose and fructose. HFCS is made from those same two subunits — just with some extra help from the lab. Basically put, HFCS starts out as cornstarch, which is made of glucose, and then some of that glucose is converted via chemical processes to fructose. So, you see, there’s some manipulation that goes into making it.

Where is it found?
Everywhere. Yes, everywhere! Bread, cookies, soda, cold cereals, candy, ketchup, lunch meats, yogurts, soups, jams, chocolate syrup — you name it and it probably contains HFCS. On a recent supermarket trip, I spent 15 minutes in the bread aisle trying to find a loaf without this sweetener. It’s become so mainstream in our food supply that it’s sometimes difficult to completely eliminate it from your diet (though Dana has come pretty close).

What has sparked the controversy?
As the use of HFCS increased, so did American’s waistlines. Once that news surfaced, the public went crazy and the HFCS backlash began. According to The American Medical Association, HFCS does not contribute more to obesity than sugar or other caloric sweeteners. The Corn Refiners Association launched an 18-month campaign full of commercials for HFCS. The movie King Corn also responded to this controversy.

According to nutritionist, author, professor and my mentor Marion Nestle, “Biochemically, high fructose corn syrup is about the same as table sugar (both have about the same amount of fructose and calories), but it is in everything and Americans eat a lot of it — nearly 60 pounds per capita in 2006, just a bit less than pounds of table sugar.”

The Latest Issues
A study released in January revealed that almost half of the commercial food products tested that contained HFCS also contained mercury. Understandably, the media went wild because mercury is toxic and has been linked to neurological damage in humans. Not surprisingly, the Corn Refiners Association released a statement claiming that the study was flawed and failed to properly conduct their study.

The Bottom Line
HFCS is found in many packaged foods and hard to avoid. If possible, opt for products without the sweetener or ones that list HFCS lower down on the ingredients (the closer it is to the end of the list, the less it contains). Sticking to a whole diet with fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, grains and legumes can help minimize your consumption. And, as we always say, moderation is key.

Even better, the latest news is that popular soft drink makers (Pepsi, Snapple and Mountain Dew) are cutting high fructose corn syrup from their mixes. We’re not huge soft drink fans, but every little step we take towards more wholesome and natural ingredients helps.

[Photo: Pontus Edenberg / SXC]

TELL US: What do you think of high fructose corn syrup?

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Comments (74)

  1. Catherine says:

    What feedback can you give me on Ethyl Acetate which some companies are using to decaffeinate coffee….How safe is it? I was told by the company that it is an extract of sugar?!! It seems some coffee companies are very quitely using the word NATURALLY leading us to believe it’s done the swiss water process way…which is truly the only safe way to decaffeinate…….

  2. Cynthia1770 says:

    My google alert for HFCS picked up your artice. I disagree with the statement “Biochemically HFCS is about the same as table sugar.” Take the variant HFCS-55 which is used to sweeten all national brands of soda. Although the 55% fructose:45% glucose ratio appears to be close to the 50:50 ratio of sucrose, it really isn’t. 55/45=1.22. That means that everytime you chug a soda your liver is receiving the health “benefits” of 22% extra fructose compared to glucose. The metabolic dangers of excess fructose have been well documented. Read
    Dr. Dana Flavin’s summary in The CRA hawks that HFCS is roughly similar to sugar; but they can’t deny the math. HFCS-55 is not close to sucrose. In fact, it is fructose heavy and they designed it that way.

  3. Trina says:

    I too will disagree with statements “biochemically is about the same as table sugar”. Especially when my 6 year old daughter will break out in hives and rashes when she consumes it. There is nothing “biochemically” equal about HFCS, especially when you yourself state is is chemically processed. WE have proudly eliminated HFCS in our household with success.

  4. Lynda says:

    Don’t try to tell me HFCS is no big deal(like those disgusting comercials do)! I am not going to buy that! I DO NOT WANT THAT GARBAGE IN MY FOOD! And it’s not just HFCS alone that has caused the obesity epidemic it’s MSG and HFCS together!

  5. Keeta says:

    What I find so funny in this country is how we Americans love fast, cheap, and the most for my dollar until an article or research comes out that says something we dont like. Common since tells us that the fact that HFCS isnt sugar means that it has been altered from some natural product to aid in the mass consumption of this wonderful nation. We are a nation of overconsumption and gluttony. Capitalism is big and making a fast dollar on lazy, and yet overworked ppl is really big. Moderation is key to anything, eating, shopping, and buying a house you know you cant afford. If you dont want the garbage then we should go back to living like our forefathers…farm and till the land. That way you know every single meal is all natural and you get exercise at the same time. Im ranting for a reason…This is a silly discussion. The bulk of what we eat at this point is manufactured to make it look pretty so that this glutonous nation will consume. You honestly cant be shocked to know the truth about HFCS, Nutri sweet, Olestra, or anything else biochemically produced for mass consumptions. You do know that not every tomato was actually grown on a farm.

  6. Jason says:

    While I agree that HFCS and MSG may have affected obesity rates, I think the reasons are different than people think. Americans eat more food in general than a lot of other countries. We overindulge in sweets. That is a bigger reason for obesity.

  7. Lloyd G says:

    HFCS,engineered food, whatever. I think Americans are finally beginning to wake up and see just how much we are manipulated by big business in this country. Maybe this economic crisis is good in the sense that it has exposed those amongst us and their sins against us. This can only bring about change if we the people demand it. Obviously there is a financial benefit to these food producing companies to use this HFCS compound. The sad part is that what effects it has on consumers is not part of the equation. It is all about the producers bottom line and not at all about the consumers well being. Just think “Enron”, sub-prime, Citibank, AIG, private jets and you yourself will see the pattern. Wake up America before it is too late!!! Or maybe it already is!!!

  8. Jennifer says:

    My family has been HFCS free since 1999! Thanks for posting this article!

  9. K. says:

    I’m surprised that you did not include the fairly well documented issues with HFCS and kidney disease. Look it up. Consider adding it.

  10. Brenda says:

    I agree with this article., I went on a diet trying not to eat food with HFCS. in it. I lost weight, had more energy than I’ve had in a long time. I felt great !!

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