High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Not So Natural After All

Carlotta Bindner

Editor's Note: This guest post comes to us from Carlota Bindner, a California-native and mom living in the mountains near Los Angeles.  She holds a degree in Animal Science and blogs at http://chemistryofjoy.wordpress.com

HFCSI was hopping mad after seeing the new High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) advertisements that are being shown on TV, paid for by none other than the Corn Refiners Association, of course. They even have an informational website, sweetsurprise.com.

Whether you are downing Twinkies packed with high-fructose corn syrup or chugging maple syrup a la "Super Troopers", large amounts of sugar are not healthy. I am not putting down HFCS just because it is currently getting attention, but I do think that the current advertisements on behalf of HFCS are sending the wrong perception about a sweetener that is so overly abundant and cheap that it is marketed to the masses in the form of candy, cereals, bread, ice cream, and many other products. I only suggest that you take a look at the ingredients list on some of your children's foods and your own - it is almost frightening how often HFCS is listed, or any other corn product for that matter.

HFCS is cheap because the U.S. government subsidizes domestic corn farmers and keeps tariffs high on imported cane sugar. So when they claim on sweetsurprise.com that "While price may have been a factor in food manufacturers' choice of sweeteners more than 20 years ago, U.S. food manufacturers' continued use of HFCS is based on the benefits it provides rather than the price relative to sugar" (sweetsurprise.com, FAQ),  I would like to reply with the question, "Why then are many of the same beverages, such as Coca Cola, or other products like breads and cereals, sold with cane or beet sugars as the primary sweeteners in other countries?"

They say that it is a "myth that high fructose corn syrup is metabolized differently than other caloric (nutritive) sweeteners", and that this finding is "based on studies that looked at pure fructose, not the mixture of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup" (sweetsurprise.com, FAQ). In an article titled The Murky World of High-Fructose Corn Syrup, author Linda Forristal, CCP, MTA discusses how studies in rats have shown that taking fructose in excess can cause problems including anemia, high cholesterol, heart hypertrophy, and delayed sexual development, especially in the presence of a copper deficiency. Yes, table sugar is a composition of 50% fructose and 50% glucose, but HFCS contains between 42% to 55% fructose - the higher value is what you find in soft drinks, the remaining percentage being glucose. Again sugar is not that much better, but there does exist a sweetener that has been touted as being healthier. Brown rice syrup, which is composed of 50% soluble complex carbohydrates, 45% maltose, and 3% glucose, is considered to be one of the healthiest sweeteners available. Why is brown rice syrup so superior? Maltose is a disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules and normally takes about one and half hours for the body to digest and absorb. Complex carbohydrates are chains of sugar molecules that normally take two to three hours to digest and absorb because they take the body more effort to break down. It is an energy source that, unlike most sweeteners, takes the body longer to incorporate so you do not get that sugar high as you might with most sweeteners.

To make HFCS, corn is milled into corn starch, which is then processed into corn syrup, and then enzymes are added to change the glucose into fructose. The resulting product of HFCS 90 is 90% fructose and 10% glucose, which is then combined with 100% glucose to obtain either HFCS 55 or HFCS 42, the two forms you find in your foods. Please note that one of the enzymes used in the process to change the glucose in the corn syrup into fructose is genetically modified, also that the majority of the corn used to make HFCS is a genetically modified crop. For a more in-depth look at the process that makes HFCS I suggest reading through Wikipedia's entry High-fructose corn syrup.

So you may ask what is the big problem and how is this all bad for the environment?

I am so glad you asked!

cornThe majority of crops are grown in monocultures in this country; and corn is no exception to this rule. Corn is a greedy crop requiring large amounts of nitrogen to grow which results in the use of nitrogen fertilizer, which then runs off and pollutes the water. These nitrogen fertilizers have resulted in an area in the Gulf of Mexico known as the "dead zone"(not to be confused with the novel or subsequent TV series). The nitrogen stimulates the growth of algae and phytoplankton that consume the oxygen from the water, causing fish and other sea life to die. Dead zones are a problem, especially if you like sea life, whether that's because you like to eat them or for other reasons. For a bit more on dead zones please read the Interview with Michael Pollan on Pacific Views - it does a nice job of going more in-depth on the subject.

While I am sure that there are many more reasons than I will list in this article, it is important to consider the following reasons for eliminating HFCS, in addition to what has already been mentioned:

  • HFCS is not found in fruits or vegetables, but only in highly processed foods and drinks that usually do not have much nutritional value. Sure sugar is sugar, but the sugar you get from fruits and vegetables comes along with vitamins and minerals that you need for a healthy body, while HFCS cannot boast such wonderful accoutrements.
  • HFCS is found in products that frequently use unnecessary packaging, which for that matter is usually not made from post-consumer recycled materials or biodegradable.
  • Making HFCS requires a lot of processing, and therefore energy. Other sweeteners can be produced with less input of energy and chemicals than HFCS.

The Corn Refiners Association can argue until they are blue in the face that HFCS isn't bad for you, they can even get the FDA to say that they can call HFCS "natural". Of course the FDA's track record does not really help to validate that statement in my opinion (BPA ring a bell?). If you are like me, you don't like putting overly processed chemicals in your loved ones' bodies, and personally I am allergic to HFCS (I do not plan on finding out if my children are or not. they don't need to experience the uncomfortable allergic reaction). They can continue their delusional campaign, I can only hope that this article helps people make the wiser choice for both themselves and the environment. 

If you would like to consult a book that really goes in depth into corn in our diets, among other issues regarding what can be found in the conventional U.S. diet, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is a wonderful read.

 Further Reading:

8 comments

If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

C Robb W. 444°

If you plot the rise of HFCS in the american diet and compare it to a plot of the rise in american obesity you should see an amazing correlation.

it has been theorized that the gene that was modified in corn so that it would produce it's own pesticide could mutate the bacteria in our guts so it too produces pesticide. Think that research will ever get funding? Even if it does, the scientists who dare to go public with findings showing ill health effects from GM foods quickly find themselves unemployed.

Any corn product that is not labelled "organic" in the US is likely to be GM. Fancy a bit of pesticide on the cob?

Written in October 2008

C Robb,
Are you referring the the GMO strain of corn that has the Bt gene from bacteria that produces the Cry protein? The Cry protein targets bugs found in the order Lepidopterans, including moths and butterflies, and was included to fight the European Corn Borer. The Cry gene actually causes pores to develop in the digestive tract of this order of bugs, which allows enteric bacteria to enter and eventually cause sepsis. It is something we discussed in one of my Issues in Animal Agriculture due to the possible ramifications that this GMO crop may have on human and other animal health, the evolution of resistance in bugs, and the rest of the environment due to its negative effect on non-targeted bug species that are within the Lepidopterans. There have been cases where allergic reactions and what is even more disturbing is the fact that these GMO corn species are actually pollinating non-GMO varieties. It is not like we have many ways to control pollination of plants that are in the open environment and I worry what effect this may have on the food supply in the future.

Written in October 2008

C Robb W. 444°

Could be, I'm no expert. I heard a lecture about it and it has stuck in my head. Seems like there are many reasons to put limits on GMO deployment.

Written in October 2008

passionategreen (anonymous)

Those commercials pissed me off too! http://passionategreen.blogspot.com/2008/09/high-fructose-corn-syrup-truth.html

Written in October 2008

R.F. Turtledove (anonymous)

Hi Carlotta. This was a very interesting article, and well researched. Thanks for the links to some of your sources. I've been mostly vegetarian for the last year and half, so I've become so much more aware of all the overly processed food our society eats, and lets our children eat. Good luck teaching your kids to make healthier choices.

Written in October 2008

Doc Sucrose (anonymous)

I think people need to read more articles like this - it's hard to dispute hard facts. We also need more studies to be constructed as to the safety of HFCS

Hopefully the market and Supply&Demand will fix this problem. Consumers need to demand natural products without HFCS. http://drinkvivi.com is one of the many new companies tryng to bank on this trend - with some luck the situation may be very different in 10 years!

Written in November 2008

Nicole Castille (anonymous)

Thank you so much for this information. I've been recently blogging about this & been busy removing it from my & my family's diet. I may refer to this entry in a future entry in my blog. It can be seen here: http://nicolenaturally.blogspot.com/.The more I learn, the more I want to remove HFCS & other artifical crap fro mthe food I eat.

Written in February 2009

Joel Harrell (anonymous)

I too am alergic to HFCS, and find it rather apauling that they are trying to call it Corn Sugar now. :(

Written in October 2010

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  • Posted on Oct. 22, 2008. Listed in:

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