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. Debbie says:

    I had a cousin who went to “fat school.” A private school for obese teenagers. They were taught that, unlike sugar, HFCS, masks the sense of fulness in your brain. I can’t quote any studies validating this, but I wonder if that’s why a single can of Coke used to fill people up.

  2. Tammy says:

    I am a registered nurse and have been saying for years, even before it was in vogue to do so that I believed that HFCS was part of the issue with our country becoming so overweight and addicted to sweets. How can the food producers deny that as soon as the consumption of this product dramatically increased so did the addictive consumption of products containing it. I have been working very hard to decrease my family’s intake of products containg it. It is difficult since as you say, it’s in everything!

  3. Dennis says:

    I am a chemist who firmly believes that science education in this country is in a sorry state. The above comments support that allegation. Fructose and glucose as in sucrose or in as in HFCS have the same caloric issues whether in a 50:50 ratio or a 55:45 ratio. Too much caloric intake of simple carbohydrates creates obesity. Don’t blame the ingredient–blame the lack of self control.

  4. Diane says:

    WE will never get HFCS out of our food supply! It is processed by ADM and they are VERY powerful and have many friends in Washington. So they will let it continue to posion our food just to make more money!

  5. Mary says:

    I cannot believe the American Maedical Association has given HFCS it’s stamp of approval. I also cannot believe that Americans will trust the garbage commercials that the CRA are putting out

  6. Tom says:

    When did we find it acceptable to start getting our food from factories instead of farms? Natural selection takes Mother Nature thousands of years, but we’re so smart we can do it safely overnight in the lab? Our family is trying hard to make the move to organic and locally grown.

  7. Amy says:

    Just wondering – are American’s going to give up pumpkin pie this thanksgiving? Because the only recipes I have ever seen for pumpkin pie call for alot of corn syrup.

  8. Zahra says:

    Wow. Thats all i can say. I’m only 13 and i know as well as any one else, that in this county people will do anything to make a quick buck, and thats disappointing. I don’t know much about Chemistry, and I’m not gunna run my mouth about anything i don’t have hard, true facts about, but mercury? Obesity? Not only do big business owners need to get a clue, but us as consumers need to pay more attention to what we’re really putting inside us

  9. Lisa says:

    Check out 2 of Oroweat’s Whole Wheat breads: 100% whole wheat has HFCS and the Country Style has sugar! Oh, I take that back – I just checked the new loaf package and they too have taken the HFCS out of both breads! But sugar is listed as the 3rd item on the ingredient list…

  10. Tracy says:

    Aunt Millie’s bread is HFCS free. It’s the only bread we buy, also make a lot of bread on my own. We are pretty close to being totally HFCS free. It’s been hard finding products without it, but they are out there…lots of fresh locally grown, organic fruits and veggies and down to our beef.

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