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. Sasha says:

    I study bio-chemistry. If a food product is processed and refined — then don’t eat or drink it. That includes SOY. The basic ingredient is not the culprit, it is how it is processed, packaged, etc. Call your local university and ask to speak with a biochemistry nutritionist. The public’s poor choices just astound me.

  2. Nadia says:

    No food is pure.

  3. Tina says:

    Thank you to Arlenna for pointing out that the caloric content of a nutrient does not tell us everything about how the body processes that nutrient. To those who complained about having to give up pumpkin/pecan pie, look at the nutrition data on Karo's website. Only the Pancake syrup contains HFCS.

  4. Susan says:

    The main reason HFCS is used commercially is of course as usual money. Everything takes a back seat to that, including our health. Christy – Mar 5 posted an interesting reference regarding the government that everyone should read. They are subsidizing HFCS to the tune of $42 billion a year. I also strongly agree with Mel’s Mar 5 comment. Those commercials sponsored by the refiners association are insulting and ridiculous. Any shows using them should be boycotted.

  5. Julie says:

    I’ve got an awesome pumpkin pie recipe-and it calls for *gasp* pumpkin and spices. ;)

    I can put it down here, if anyone is interested. I largely cook from scratch, but I do enjoy the occasional DIAB night. (dinner in a box). Now I’m scared to do that. I’ll seriously post recipes for anything anyone asks for, from scratch. I am vibing that the old way is probably the better way.

  6. Blake says:

    After reading Leslie’s comment, I have to recomend Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. He addresses the science (or lack thereof) behind the western diet, and the problems we have of oversimplification, the pleasure being sucked out of food, and a host of other things.

  7. Pierce says:

    I totally agree with Debbie Teel’s comment about the governments influence on what we eat. I think corn producers are such a large industry that they have the power to manipulate what we eat even if it is bad for us.
    Eat anything you want people ! Just do it in moderation everyone !!!

  8. Rob says:

    I don't believe that HFCS is safe, even in moderation. The stuff should just be avoided, period.

  9. Guest says:

    Corn sugar is fructose and requires an extra metabolic step compared to table sugar (or dextrose) to break down into glucose so is actually a better sugar hypoglycemically for diabetics. Problem is not where the sugar originates but the fact that it is ubiquitous and all of us Americans eat too much sugar in any form. High fructose corn syrup is not too much different from the corn syrup we have used for years in Pecan Pies (personally I don't care much for nut pie so is not a problem for me). The reason it is used in so many products is that it is cheap. Cook at home from scratch folks and you'll know what is in your foods, to the extent that any of us knows what goes into our foods unless we grow it, pack it, and/or slaughter it ourselves and how many of us who live in cities are able to do that? Try your best and get off the guilt trip. You can determine how you spend your money and what you eat; quit the blame game.

  10. I really liked your blog article.Really looking forward to read more. Great.

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