The debate over high fructose corn syrup: whether or not it is bad for people, or to what degree it is bad for people, has been dragging on for over a decade. For the average consumer there is simply no clear answer, and researching the subject can often lead to some confusing contradictions. The reason it is so hard to get a straight answer from any source is that, as might be inferred , there is a significant amount of politics going on behind the scenes. Economics and profit are a huge motivator for government and corporate entities to keep people in the dark about what they are really putting in their own bodies, but, in the spirit of fairness, the misinformation is coming from both sides. In order to unravel the truths of this mysterious product, we must first get down to the very basic, molecular structure of it. What, exactly, is high fructose corn syrup?
First of all, it must be understood that there are several different forms of sugar that can combine and react to form different food products. The first is called glucose, and this is an important carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. It is found in foods such as grains, pastas and vegetables. Another type is called fructose. This is a simple sugar that is much sweeter than glucose and is found in things such as fruit, honey, and flowers. It is important to note that both these forms of sugar are naturally occurring. So is sucrose, a third form of sugar that is a compound, or disaccharide, of fructose and glucose. Sucrose is also another name for what we would know as white table sugar, or what we pour, half-awake, into our coffee in the morning. Glucose and fructose are also the two ingredients that make up high fructose corn syrup. Sucrose is a 50/50 combination of the two, while HFCS is either 45% fructose and 55% glucose, or 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The former, known as HFCS-45, is less sweet than sugar and is generally used in baked goods. HFCS-55, which is sweeter than sugar, is used in products like soft drinks. So on a structural level, HFCS is almost identical to white sugar. The difference is, HFCS does not happen naturally.
In 1957, scientists discovered an enzyme that could convert the naturally-occurring glucose found in corn (not a naturally sweet food) into fructose, resulting in an extremely sweet substance that would then be remixed with glucose to form what we now know as HFCS. This coincided with a serendipitous time in American industry in which corn production was becoming subsidized, meaning that corn farmers were profiting from producing as much corn as possible, regardless of whether their product was actually needed. Before the discovery of the fructose producing enzyme, much of this excess corn was being shipped to food deprived nations in Africa; however, this practice came to a grinding halt after the implications of this new sweetener came to light. HFCS, after its initial development, was cheap to produce; much cheaper than cane or beet sugars, and after sugar became even more expensive because of tariffs implemented in the mid 1970s, HFCS went on the market as a main-stream alternative to traditional sweeteners, and spread like wildfire into a wide variety of food products that include the very obvious, like Coke and Pepsi, to the downright alarming, such as bread and spaghetti sauce. HFCS was an insidious product whose versatility and low cost gained it access into more food products than the public may care to imagine. But after enjoying a few robust decades of industrial success, high fructose corn syrup came up against some quite serious accusations.
For one thing, the time in which HFCS started showing up in everything (the early 1980s) coincided with the beginning of a steady rise in type 2 diabetes and obesity in the US. It is important to note that this is a correlation statistic, and does not necessarily that HFCS was the sole cause of this trend. However, several studies have been conducted whose results add validation to the obesity theory. For example, a 2010 Princeton University study found that male rats who were fed a supplemental diet of HFCS flavored water (in a concentration about half the intensity of normal soft drinks) gained significantly more weight than male rats who were fed a supplement of sucrose-flavored water. In addition to the weight gain, the HFCS rats were also found to have increased levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat that in humans are linked to a wide variety of health conditions including diabetes, cancer, and coronary artery disease. Pretty soon, links between HFCS and health decline and disease were so prevalent in mainstream media that the product came to be known to the public as nothing short of a toxin, and a menace to the health of Americans, especially young children.
In an attempt to counteract this bad reputation, the Corn Refiners Association launched its “Sweet Surprise” campaign, the focus of which was that HFCS is “made from corn”, “natural”, and “fine in moderation”- which was met, predictably, with outrage from HFCS opponents who called the campaign deceptive, condescending, and downright untrue. Here are some of the most common “facts” or “myths” you may have heard, and the truth behind them.
HFCS is sweeter than regular sugar. This point is often brought up to support the idea that HFCS is harder to stop eating than other sugars, which leads to obesity and other related diseases. Surprisingly, this is not true. In fact, high fructose corn syrup was specifically engineered to be as close to the taste of regular sugar as possible- this way, HFCS would serve as a cheap replacement while still maintaining the flavor that consumers were used to. It is also true that HFCS is structurally almost identical to sucrose, an oft-cited fact from the Corn Refiners to support the idea that there is really no difference between HFCS and “regular sugar.” However, when they go one step further and state that your body cannot tell the difference between the two, this is were the truth may be getting warped. HFCS-55, the kind found in soda among other products, has ten percent more fructose than regular sugar. This may not seem like a big difference, but when the amount of HFCS that the average American consumes is taken into consideration (42 pounds a year) this becomes a considerable addition of fructose to an individual’s diet. Unlike glucose, which can be metabolized by virtually any part of the body, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, and the liver has a limit on how much fructose it will metabolize. The unmetabolized fructose then gets turned into triglycerides, which as we said previously, is an excess presence of fat in the bloodstream. In short, not good news for your body. So, although HFCS is not that much sweeter, and is almost identical in structure to sucrose, that small percentage more fructose that HFCS possesses does make an unhealthy difference to your body. Furthermore, HFCS has also been linked to insulin resistance, meaning that the signals that your body releases to let you know that you are full and to stop eating are ignored, making it easier for the consumer to overeat.
The argument that HFCS is fine in moderation is all well and good on paper or in a Corn Refiners advertisement. But the prevalence of HFCS in America’s food supply negates this sentiment from the beginning. It may be fine in moderation, but almost no one is eating it that way. Conceivably, the people who are consuming the most HFCS are the most unaware of how much of it they are consuming. It’s in meat as a preservative, in bread to make it browner and more appealing, and in spaghetti sauce to enhance flavor. All this extra fructose is making its way into all of our bodies and bloodstreams. The greatest truth to be learned in the HFCS debate is that we have to be aware as individuals of exactly what we are consuming. The facts are out there, but they take effort to find. High fructose corn syrup may not be poison, but, just like sugar, it isn’t healthy either, and much about it remains uncertain. In the end, when it comes to HFCS, we must simply use our best judgement.