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?

Similar Posts

This Week’s Nutrition News Feed

In this week’s news: Some Americans — but not all — are eating better; junk-food cravings may be all in our minds; and back-to-schoo...

Comments (74)

  1. Holly says:

    HFCS is garbage and should be banned. Our house is HFCS-free!

  2. Leslie says:

    Trying to eat sanely these days is becoming a nightmare. What is bad for you this month is okay two years down the line. The most sane method would be to eat as naturally as possible – fresh fruits, produce, etc. However, unless you buy organic “they” have you believing that all other produce is a toxic waste. And let’s not forget the critters out there and how badly they are treated before they go out to slaughter or the tiny cages they are kept in while laying our eggs. I can’t stand this anymore – eating used to be a pleasure – it is NOT anymore! I’m starting to feel guilty about everything I eat because it’s reported to be bad for me or if I eat meat I’m causing the are torture animals. We are obese because we don’t cook our own food, we eat out too much, we eat way too much and we don’t exercise!

  3. Katie says:

    There are MANY contributing factors to obesity. While HFCS may play a role, it’s not the only reason for a nationwide obesity epidemic. Decreased physical activity, increased high fat/high calorie/low nutrient dense food availability, etc. all contribute to obesity. Epidemiologic data (which shows only correlations, not cause and effect)supports the association between HFCS and the rise in obesity…but what else has happened in the last 50 years? Society is less active (more desk/service jobs vs. active factory/farming jobs), there has been a rise in convience foods and a fast paced lifestyle that promotes unhealthy eating, etc.
    Extreme limitation of any food or food additive is usually unpractical, unneccessary, and costly. Moderation is key. By sticking to fresh or homemade foods in which the ingredients can be controlled, HFCS can be avoided–these are the basic tenants of a healthy diet anyway.
    Food manufacturers will no doubt elimate HFCS from their foods (just like trans fats are disappearing), but american will still be obese without making OTHER lifestyle changes as well.

  4. kjohncook says:

    The reason that the science telling use what’s good or bad for use changes every six months is because they don’t know what’s good or what’s bad. We live in a great nation that is failing in more ways than I care to count, but one truth is for the most part feed people are happy people and hungry people start revolutions. The only way to keep people feed in a country where they are getting poorer and poorer is to make food cheaper and cheaper. We do this by consolidating; we’ve taken one of the most productive agricultural nations in the world one that only 40 years ago produced a plethora of goods and produce, and reduced it to two things soy and corn.
    This all started back in the Nixon days when his department of agriculture dropped the bottom out of the corn market buy getting rid of FDR’s national grain bank putting a lot of small farmers out of business, and allowing there land to be bought out by the large conglomerates. Now forty years latter we are a nation with a lot of corn but not much else, and as cleaver as we are we have found a lot of ways to use it. HFCS is just the surface the truth is corn in one form or another is in every thing. It sweetens, emulsifies, and preserves the vast majority of are food even the “organic” stuff.
    It brakes down to this if you think we can figure out 2 million years worth of evaluations effects on the human diet in 100 years of modern nutritional science then eat all the mac’ds and HFCS you want. But if not then do this. If you can yes start a garden it’s good for you in so many ways, and for sure support you local farmers market, don’t worry so much about eating healthy, and just eat natural. We don’t all have to become farmers for this to work, but there was a time not so long ago when this country was held up on the backs of the small farm, and if you ask anyone over 60 they’ll tell you that in a lot of ways it was a better time.

  5. Janice says:

    I think high fructose corn syrup should be substituted for the sugar that comes from the stevia plant. That sugar has zero calories.

    I think all the plants that make high fructose corn syrup should be turned into refineries and make gas for cars.

    That would be better for our waistlines and more importantly better for Our Environment.

  6. HFCS needs to be banned. My husband has diabetes, and each time he eats anything with HFCS his blood sugar sky rockets. We need to follow purity laws like Germany has, the food would taste like food again.

  7. Michelle says:

    I've been a label reader for years and don't by anything that has HFCS or MSG. I too have spent more time checking for these ingredients than actually shopping. Even saltine crackers aren't safe from this stuff. My husband over the last couple of years has been checking labels for these and won't buy the product if they are included. Way to go to everyone out there that is shunning the processed food market! Fresh is the only way to go.

  8. E Duran says:

    TASTE is paramount and is health.
    Drink a coke made with sugar and it’s a
    huge difference in TASTE, and probably
    HEALTH. In fact, nothing tastes like it used to.

  9. Andrea says:

    Thank you so much for posting this article. Since having a serious GI ailment since July of 2008, the doctors have put me on a fructose free diet, except for the natural kind, like fruits and vegetables. It never dawned on my how much of this stuff is in the products we eat. Even in the most seemingly healthy products, like yogurt. The only yogurt I can safely eat now is plain, non-fat. Truly amazing…all the more reason for us to go back to cooking like our grandparents…from scratch and only using the natural ingedients in their most whole form. Very interesting, thank you!

  10. Arlenna says:

    Dennis on Mar. 2nd: You may be a chemist, so yes you understand that calorically glucose and fructose give out the same amount of energy when burned. BUT biochemists and biologists know that the metabolic pathways used to process fructose are DIFFERENT than those used for glucose. Glucose gets stored as glycogen, which is released as more glucose when needed. But fructose gets sent right through the triglyceride formation pathway, and gets stored as fats. Those triglycerides floating around in the bloodstream waiting to be packed into fat storage also affect insulin signaling, disrupting endocrine balance and appetite as well as eventually leading to what they call “metabolic syndrome.”

    So, as a Ph.D. scientist and assistant professor in the biomedical sciences at a major research university, I would encourage you as a chemist to go study up on some endocrinology and biology. Then you’ll understand that glucose and fructose ARE indeed different to the body.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>