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. Elizabeth Warren says:

    The big problem as I see it with HFCS, is that when looking at labels for sugars, HFCS is listed separately from other sugars. One can easily be fooled re sugar content, if TOTAL sugars are not added together in the list of ingredients on the box. Companies do the same sort of thing when they tout “NO CHOLESTERAL” on label packaging of non-meat items. Of course there’s no cholesteral- is not found in veggies & grain. Duh!

  2. Susan says:

    I’m am so pleased to see the FoodNetwork taking responsibility for the information, recommendations and recipes they are providing to their readers and viewers. It’s upsetting to me to watch some of the shows that are so indulgent, with no regard for what is healthy. I enjoy Paula Dean’s personality and I know people enjoy her as an entertainer. But her lifestyle is obviously not a healthy approach and I object to the recipes and “over the top” unhealty foods she introduces to people. With that said – it also comes back to corporate america and the manufacturers of the food available in the marketplace. They don’t really care whether it is healthy for you or not – it’s all about the bottom line. Their margins, their profitability, their stockholders . . . which if you think about it ties right back to the issues we are having as a country with corporate disasters. Last but not least – we must take personal responsibility for our health and the health of our families. Introducing children to sugars so early on in life, and then fast foods, processed foods . . . no wonder we have an epidemic of obesity. I understand convenience – we all lead a fast paced life – but maybe it’s time for us all to reevaluate our priorities in life. As one who has had to deal with her addiction to sugar – it is a demon to be reckoned with.
    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  3. Jaimi Butler says:

    It’s not just about weight issues, it’s about us eating over-processed and unhealthy foods. I have never had a weight problem, but I choose not to eat anything that contains HFCS. It’s a personal choice, but I believe it is absolutely the healthiest choice for my body. I live in Texas so I have found that HEB brands of bread don’t contain HFCS, also Archer Farms bread at Target is HFCS free. If you look around a bit, you can find plenty of products that DON’T have HFCS.

  4. Dr. Craig Newton says:

    To answer the comment above from Lynda, HFCS and MSG combined are not the reason we are the fattest country on the planet (yes, folks, we are no. 1). There are two reasons. First, we do not cook for ourselves. Parents are not teaching their children how to cook. Our idea of cooking is to throw a frozen processed dinner either in the oven or on the stove and call it home cooking. Second is that we do not get enough physical activity. I am not talking about exercise, I am talking about taking an elevator one floor instead of the stairs. On average we get less than half the recommended daily physical activity per person. I am a health professor and I am appalled at how obese our youth are. Getting rid of HFCS and MSG will not reverse the trend. Getting rid of McDonalds (or Burger King, Wendy’s, will not reverse the trend, either. We have to start cooking at home more often, reduce portion sizes, and get off our fat asses and move around more. Getting off my soap box now.

  5. LJ says:

    Any excuse will do in a pinch. Let’s all find the next big killer of America!
    Eggs are bad, butter is bad, aspartame is bad, HFCS is bad…
    Please, unless something is proven to cause cancer (saccharin), then give it a rest and everyone chill out. Who has time to keep up with “What will kill you now”? Don’t eat like a gluttoneous fiend, try cooking from scratch sometime, and exercise. It’s not that tough, people.

  6. Phil says:

    We as Americans seem to be unable accept any blame. Chemically processed HFCS did not cause your obesity, the fact that you can’t stop stuffing your face with junk caused your obesity. Try less gravy on your meatloaf, don’t get the largest soda and fries with your double cheese burger, and for the love of God eat four scoops of cookie dough ice cream instead of half the carton. Have some self respect and take a little responsibility to make your life better on your own instead of whining and carrying on while searching to find another scapegoat for the reason you can’t see your toes.

  7. Julie says:

    I thought the “big” problem w/hfcs was that you do not feel full w/it like you do w/normal, regular sugar, so you eat/drink more of it. It is in so many foods, that unless you grow your own, it is very difficult to shop for things w/out it in regular grocery stores.

    Could anyone site the hfcs and mercury connection? How on earth did mercury end up in processed foods? Which foods/drinks? yikes. That alone is more scary than Jason Vorheese in part II.

  8. HFCS is somthing to stay away from. Slowly but surely! However, if anyone thinks that HFCS alone or HFCS are the only culprits for America’s huge waistline you are wrong. We lead sedintary lifestyles in comparison with generations before us. My grandmother walked 2 miles to a bus stop to go to work everyday! What do we do? Now-a-days we barely use our legs! I’m just as bad but I am trying to make the change!

  9. Toni-Ann Mistretta says:

    I am allergic to HFCS so I say good riddance, I believe we will find out more and more about the negative effects of HFCS on human health over the next few years.

  10. steve pittsley says:

    I think there’s NOTHING wrong with HFCS.. It tases Great , and is actually better for you , if you are a diabetic.

    It’s a shame that the Big Sugar Companies can’t share a bit of their MASSIVE hold on the sugar / sweetening Market. ( See Splenda , Stevia , et al )
    I say let’s get our corn production up , so that we are not so dependent on forgein sugar …

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