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The Low Down on High Fructose Corn Syrup

Written by Christa O’Brien

Recently you may have heard that The Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to “rename” their ubiquitous product High-Fructose Corn Syrup to plain old “Corn Sugar.” On the CRA’s website cornsugar.com the lobby group states, “Many people do not realize that high fructose corn syrup is composed of same simple sugars found in table sugar and honey-glucose and fructose–in virtually the same ratios.” Some readers might brush this off as no big deal. It is a product rename. And HFCS is just a sugar, so such a name is fitting? No?

The issue is slightly more complex. Because chemically speaking, sugars are all really different and the body does different things with them. There is sucrose and fructose, glucose and dextrose, lactose and maltose and many others. But while High-Fructose Corn Syrup is made from plain ole’ corn, it is only certain parts of the familiar plant. And those extracted and refined sugars don’t act the same way in your body as they would if you ate the whole kernel right off the cob.

SODASucrose or table sugar is a disaccharide composed of a molecule of glucose and a molecule of fructose chemically bonded together with a relatively weak molecular bond. That bond is broken when it’s in your tummy being digested. Now hold that thought, I am coming back to this.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup is different.

HFCS is produced by milling corn to produce starch, then processing that starch to yield corn syrup (think Karo Pecan Pie ingredients). Standard corn syrup is made up of almost entirely glucose molecules and glucose doesn’t taste as sweet to the human tongue as sucrose. Regular corn syrup was all we had for a while, but it couldn’t function as a proper sugar replacement because it just didn’t taste right. Anyone who has tasted Karo knows what I am talking about. But in 1957 Richard O. Marshall and Earl P. Kooi added enzymes to that glucose corn syrup. Those enzymes broke down most of the glucose into fructose. The result is a syrup that is almost entirely fructose. High-Fructose Corn Syrup is derived by mixing the original standard Karo-like syrup (almost pure glucose) and the altered corn syrup (overwhelmingly fructose). The more fructose you add, the sweeter the mixture tastes on the tongue. HFCS 55 is 55% fructose and has a comparable sweetness to table sugar, only in liquid form. And in case you hadn’t already put two and two together, that is the particular HFCS that is used to make soda.

Glucose is used by the body in everything from basic energy to brain function; Glucose is also metabolized in every cell in the body.  Fructose is altogether different.

But that brings me back to the original question, Why is it a big deal that the CRA wants to rename their product “corn sugar”? The name “corn sugar” is not so false. HFCS is made from corn and it is a form of sugar. But many critics argue that renaming HFCS would align it with table sugar in the consumer’s mind. No doubt the CRA has the same intention. Remember earlier I told you when sugar is digested, your tummy breaks it into its glucose and fructose molecules. Glucose is used by the body in everything from basic energy to brain function; Glucose is also metabolized in every cell in the body. Fructose is altogether different. Fructose is only metabolized in the liver. Livers of lab animals fed large amounts of fructose have fatty deposits and cirrhosis similar to the livers of alcoholics. The fructose found in High-Fructose Corn Syrup is free or unbound because it is simply mixed in  solution with glucose as opposed to bonded like in table sugar. Here’s why this is significant – research indicates that it is this free fructose that is the problem. Free or unbound liquid fructose is almost never found in nature. And although whole fruits contain fructose, they contain so much fiber that you’d be hard pressed to eat enough apples to ingest a dangerous amount of fructose. You would be way too full! Whole fruits also contain a whole host of healthy vitamins and minerals as well.

Earlier this year, Tom Laskawy, for Grist.org, covered a Princeton University study of rats ingesting HFCS. The study concluded,

“Rats with access to High-Fructose corn syrup gained weight significantly more than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.”

The study goes on to say that

“Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t, at least under the conditions of our tests.

In the last 30 years America has become the fattest country in the world. No shocker there. According to a new study by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 34% of the US population is considered obese while a whopping 70% is considered overweight. I am not saying that High-Fructose Corn Syrup is our only problem food in this country, it is not the smoking gun, per se. But it is certainly part of the problem.

high-fructose-corn-syrupIf you always had a bad feeling about HFCS, you are not alone. Many of my close mom-friends have concerns about HFCS and want to cut it out of their diets. Most people I know do not drink soda regularly, so they assume that they ingest little if any HFCS. But the problem is HFCS is everywhere. HFCS can be found in yogurt, muffins, breads, ketchup, pasta sauce, salad dressings, juice drinks. HFCS can even be included in products that are labeled “All Natural” because the FDA does not have a legal definition for the term “All Natural”. All the FDA asks with a label of “All Natural” is that the produce be derived from something in nature. HFCS is under that definition of “All Natural.

…the problem is HFCS is everywhere…HFCS can even be included in products that are labeled “All Natural”…

Many companies are reformulating their products to eliminate the HFCS and instead include sugar, cane sugar, cane juice, raw sugar, turbinado sugar, brown rice syrup, malt syrup, or some other form of naturally occurring sugar. Unfortunately on the other end of the spectrum, The Sugar Association (Washington’s Cane/ Beet Sugar Lobby) is reaping the benefits from all the increased business. And they want you to believe that High Fructose Corn Syrup is BAD, and Cane Sugar is GOOD. Cane Sugar may not be as bad as HFCS, but it is still linked to a whole host of degenerative diseases because it also contains fructose. Don’t be fooled.

Since cutting HFCS out of my family’s diet, the most important thing I have learned to do is to READ LABELS. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go grocery shopping when you have time on your hands (but aren’t hungry).
  • Never pay attention to any health claims on the front of the package, they are not regulated as strictly as the nutrition panel on the back.
  • And never assume that just because you know, love or respect a certain brand they are above including some questionable ingredients. Just recently I discovered that the brand of Half and Half offered in my office contains milk and cream AND less than 2% stabilizers?! I wasn’t aware that milk and cream even needed to be stabilized.

If you have never looked at the ingredients on your favorite yogurt or ice cream, turn the package over and start reading. HFCS is unnecessary. You and your kids don’t need it. You didn’t grow up eating it. You really didn’t, because HFCS wasn’t in the food supply in such an omnipresent way until about 20-30 years ago.

The controversy over HFCS is not new. Our national obesity epidemic has dominated the medical media coverage recently, with many experts pointing the finger squarely at HFCS.  And as I mentioned, many food manufacturers have eliminated the ingredient due to pressure from their customers. So, there are plenty of foods in the grocery store without HFCS. But you do have to look for them. My recommendation? If you want to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, start by buying products that do not contain HFCS. They are out there. Then you can make the decision to go further and choose products with lower amounts of added sugars, or products with no added sugars. As you begin to eliminate some of the sugar in your diet, you may just find that you never needed as much as you originally thought you did.

Christa O’Brien lives in New York City with her husband and her two very energentic little boys. She believes in real traditional foods, living without modern processed foods and cooking with kids. In addition to working full time she blogs about cooking and eating real food at The Table of Promise: One Family’s Search for a Better Meal.

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  1. Thank you for this!

    HFCS, Sugar and most other sweeteners are a huge concern in this country. We’ve personally eliminated the majority of sugars from our diet including refined grains. One point that I’d like to add is that the corn used is almost always made from Genetically Modified corn. By 2009/2010 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified, recently a federal judge banned the gmo sugar beet unfortunately, it looks like the USDA is currently ignoring the ruling

    Your readers may also be interested in this article about the cane sugar industry:
    Oh Sugar!

    October 20, 2010

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