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. Madelyn says:

    I agree! Good riddance. I have elimiated it from my family’s diet. Can we get rid of the BHA, BHT and TBHQ now?

  2. Francine says:

    I think it’s a choice and common sense that HFCS is bad for us,it’s man made!!!
    I have always had a sweet tooth but I have discovered Agava Necter instead of chemical subsitutes. It’s nautral, from nature!!! That’s what people have to start thinking about, with all the processed food comes all the diseases. It’s a choice people have to make, if you eat junk, your body will be junk sooner or later!!!

  3. Kathi DePolis says:

    Being highly allergic to corn products, I would welcome manufacturers going back to basics. Truth of the matter is, there is more out there made from corn then just HFCS. Crystalline Fructose for instance is 99.5% of Fructose assay which is a higher percentage then HFCS, but the other ingredient is arsenic not to mention heavy metals, lead and chloride – this product is included in energy drinks, low calorie drinks, health drinks – does that sound healthy to you?
    The corn industry thinks by changing the name, they can fool people.
    Corn manufacturers have managed to get corn into everything from the plastic bottles we drink from to the paper plates we eat off of to the makeup we put on our faces and the gas we put into our cars.
    People who have severe allergies to corn are unable to escape it entirely. Don’t stop at checking your food labels, check vitamins, medications, lotions, powders etc.
    I would welcome the change back to pure sugar and if companies start doing that, maybe we can send a message to our food companies that pure is better and healthier for our families and we as people of this country don’t want to just sit back and take what they give us, we want results and choices.
    All of you are right, it wasn’t just the HFCS that have caused the weight problem. Our laziness contributed but so did the fast food for convenience industry. Guess what folks, your fast food has high quantities of corn products too.
    Do your research, you’ll be surprised what you find.

  4. Maggie says:

    It’s not just babies & children,HFCS gives me hives.

    Try shopping for something without it, it is almost impossible. In my research, I’ve discovered that even
    natural flavorings can mean HFCS. At best, this refers to distilled grain alcohol. According to a rep at Ocean Spray, this almost always means corn. I realize that is somewhat different from HFCS, but if you are allergic to corn, as I am, you will find it impossible to completely avoid. Those of you who believe that they are HFCS free. Kudos!!! This is not an easy thing to do.

    One thing not mentioned that I can see is the fact that the percentage of HFCS is extremely high compared to the amount of cane sugar used to sweeten the same product. It’s really apples and oranges, not the same as the nutritionists are still being taught.

    For me. It’s easy.

    HFCS = overweight and in pain
    no HFCS = skinny and healthy

    That’s without having to exercise.

  5. Donna says:

    I have been fighting corn syrup for years, my daughter was very food allergic from birth and one of the things was corn, then wheat – it was next to impossible to get anything back then, late 1970’s without either, now my grandson is type 1 diabetic and the corn syrup is still very much an issue in foods. I’ll be glad to see it removed from all foods possible.

  6. Lisa says:

    Whether you want to eat it or not as an adult that can make educational decisions is fine with me. However, I hate it that every school lunch and probably most hospital cafeteria food is serving this junk. Fastfood & junk food advertising works very well on children & peer pressure to eat like all the other kids is very hard to fight. My kids don't want to take their lunch or deny a free soda from a party because it tastes good to them. This is why hot topics on what is good for us & what isn't is so important to discuss. Do we really want to be poisoning our kids or our future?

  7. Mel says:

    HFCS is horrible!! there are so many other sources out there that can be used daily in our diets and by manufacturers instead of GMO’s (a genetically modified food) , stevia, honey,beet sugar,cane etc etc however this is just another way for manufacturers to put what they want in our foods because most of uneducated americans eat what TASTES good and not whats GOOD for them…how many pple read labels? ….educate yourself pple !! diff types of sugars metabolize differently in the body …
    look at trans fats, doritos for one says NO TRANS fats on the bag but if you turn it over it will list a partially hydrogenated oil of some sort , which is a trans fat….its all about selling stupidity to consumers…
    What really is appauling is the commercial by the refiners assoc. regarding HFCS and how they try to make health minded educated pple look “stupid”!! i will not watch the Food network because of this….its one thing to make a point about a product but another to make others appear stupid for their personal choices. I have no respect for the refiners association and am dissapointed in the food network for allowing this ….im sure millions of other health minded pple out there are too.
    when will americans wake up and realize “you are what you eat”!

  8. Beth says:

    HFCS and my child acts hyper–he cannot sit still, won’t listen, etc.
    No HFCS and he is a pleasant child. Even if he has soda or candy with sugar. IT is just the HFCS. Even he knows it and checks the labels. He is 9 years old.

  9. Why has it escaped the manufacturing industry that the use of STEVIA is a much preferable choice in the use of sweeteners? It’s naturally occurring and has no chlorine bleach in it (like others). It is safe for diabetics and everyone else. Right now, there are several companies who have STEVIA products available and can be purchased at Health Food Stores and grocery stores.

  10. christie says:

    and then there’s the government’s role. do the research…here’s a start:

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