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What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?

One day, years ago, as I was enjoying a big refreshing gulp from a bottle of iced tea, a friend asked me, “Aren’t you worried about HFCS?”

HFCS? Wiping away the little bit of sugary dribble that had settled on my lower lip, I repeated the acronym to myself, and a series of possibilities popped into my head: a new rock band; a department of the federal government; some recently discovered disease I should be concerned about …

Seeing my blank expression, my friend clarified, “You know. High fructose corn syrup, the incredibly refined sugar product made from corn that is in everything we eat, and is making this whole country overweight and diabetic. Your iced tea is full of it.”

You may have heard about high fructose corn syrup under similar circumstances. Maybe you were even left feeling judged about your food choices, or annoyed about having to think about yet another food ingredient that just may or may not be harmful. If you’re confused about what high fructose corn syrup is, or how eating foods containing it affect your health, you’re not alone. This overview is for you!

What is It?
As the name suggests, high fructose corn syrup is a type of corn syrup, which is a viscous liquid made from cornstarch. To make corn syrup, chemists in a lab use enzymes to convert the glucose in the corn to fructose. Huh? Let’s break that down into English …

Glucose is the main energy source for all life. Everything from tiny bacteria to very big elephants needs glucose to survive. Plants make it from energy they get from the sun, and we get it by eating plants or animals that eat plants. When we eat, digestive enzymes in our mouths, stomachs, and intestines separate out the glucose so our bodies can use it. To make corn syrup, chemists use an enzyme called amylase that is similar to the digestive enzymes in our bodies to separate the glucose from the cornstarch and concentrate it into sugar. High fructose corn syrup is made from that same basic process. Using an enzyme called glucose isomerase, the corn starch is refined until the glucose is converted into a sugar called fructose, which is commonly found in fruit and honey. The result is a sweetener that is now found in a wide variety of food products around the world including soda, cereals, cookies, cakes, granola bars, whole wheat bread, chocolate milk, yogurt and, yes, some kinds of iced tea.

Why is it in so many foods?
Although it seems like a relatively new food ingredient, HFCS was first created in the 1950s, and began to be mass-produced during the mid-1970s. At that point, it was rapidly added as the sweetener to soft drinks and a number of other processed foods. The rise in HFCS use came about due to a number of factors, including quotas for domestic sugar, an import tariff on foreign sugar, and most of all, government subsidies for U.S. corn. The combination of these factors caused HFCS to quickly become the most affordable way to make foods sweet. Additionally, it lent a number of properties to food that beet or cane sugar didn’t, such as an increased shelf life, added moisture, and much, much more sweetness.

So, Why All the Fuss?
Americans consume on average 60 pounds of HFCS per person per year. When it comes to the possible adverse effects of consuming high-fructose corn syrup, the jury is still out. Consequently, a heated debate has ensued over its possible negative health effects versus the profit margins of the large companies that use it.

Although high-fructose corn syrup appears chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), critics argue that it is more harmful to humans than regular sugar. Many fear that its increasing prevalence is contributing to the rise in obesity, especially in young children. The problem, they say, is that fructose consumption does not cause an insulin response in the body. Insulin helps to suppress the appetite, so no insulin response can leave us feeling hungry, even after a large intake of calories. This can lead to overeating, which can result in obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type II diabetes.

Much of this theory has not been properly confirmed, and it’s not possible at this point to pin the blame for growing obesity epidemic squarely on HFCS. Nevertheless, its introduction to the American diet coincides closely with the rise of obesity in the U.S. According to the CDC, in 1970, around 15% of the U.S. population met the definition for obesity; today, roughly one-third of American adults are considered obese.

Despite suspicions that HFCS might be harmful, the Corn Refiners Association of America maintains that HFCS is a natural by-product of corn very similar to table sugar. In response to the negative publicity their product has received, they have recently appealed to have the name changed to “corn sugar.”

To Eat It or Not the Eat It?
In the healthy eating classes I teach, I always highlight the importance of label reading. To help make that process easier, I share a list of “ingredients to watch out for.” At the top of the list is high fructose corn syrup.

That doesn’t mean that every time someone offers you a piece of cake or a bite of a sandwich, you have to worry about whether it will bring you one more bite closer to a diet related disease. What it does mean is that you should become more thoughtful and cautious in general about what you are putting into your body. The simplest way to significantly reduce the number of highly processed artificial food ingredients, like HFCS, in your diet is to eat mostly whole foods. A “whole food” is any food that is made up of itself and only itself, such as fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, and nuts.

If you are going to buy anything that comes out of a box or a bag, make sure that you read the label and recognize everything in the list of ingredients. If HFCS — or some other unknown substance that sounds like a character from the last science fiction novel you read — is listed, try choosing another brand. Increasingly, food companies are making alternatives, or “throwbacks,” to products with HFCS as an ingredient.

These days, I get my iced tea fix the old fashioned way, with a few bags of tea, water, ice and some good old fashioned honey.

Try to keep it simple, and keep it real!


1 J.C. { 02.18.11 at 9:42 am }

According to my dietician, the reasons for HFCS not doing much to curb appetite is that Fructose is processed in the liver, hence the possibility of liver damage if feeding too much to small children. Chemically, it really is no different than other sugars other than the fact that it ranges from 55 – 60% Fructose to 40 – 45% Glucose, whereas natural sugars are opposite.
Growing up, most of our food was from the garden or local butchers, but we are all quite overweight, so don’t go blaming HFCS, we just ate too much and exercised too little, it’s that simple. The whole big fuss with HFCS is just that it’s a highly concentrated source of unneeded sugars, but calling for it to be banned is just like New York banning trans fats, it’s our choice of what to eat so stop trying to be our moms and telling us what we can and can’t eat. I’m tired of people not wanting to take responsibility for their own choices and blame a company that is making good money providing something that a lot of people want. I took responsibility for my own diet instead of trying to just cut out sugar or carbs, i balanced everything and started exercising more, next thing I know and I’m at 13% body fat with a BP of 120/60, and 50lbs lighter. I still drink a Pepsi every once in a while, just not every day like I used to.

2 Jean Black { 02.11.11 at 11:27 am }

To D. All the more reason to see Nurse Practitioners! I have been telling my patients for years that our bodies are exquisitely efficient at processing/digesting proteins, carbohydrates and fats, but not chemicals, i.e., the reason for obesity. Our metabolic rate slows down in order to know where to put the myriad of chemicals we consume on a daily basis. Plus, sweet tastes whet the appetite and invite us to consume more salty (another issue) foods. Altering any natural product whether by enzyme action, heat, the addition of chemicals, etc. confuses the body and compromises the immune system. Think about it, if the cave men and women had our diet, we would not be here to blog the most “consuming” issue of our time.

3 Tell the truth { 02.07.11 at 3:30 pm }

My daughters pediatrician told her to NOT give HFCS to her babies! It will cause liver damage over a short period of time. They are 2yrs and 1yr. She is very diligent in keeping it out of their bodies. Adults in moderation maybe like anything else but for children, they should stay away from it.

4 StoneMaven { 01.21.11 at 12:19 pm }

All 3 of my sons are allergic to corn products. The one that sets them off the worst? HFCS. I’m not talking about agitation and hyperactivity either – although it does that to them too, I’m talking about bloody diarrhea! There are few products from bread to ice cream to ketchup that I didn’t have to learn to make from scratch so I could feed my kids. HFCS is in EVERYTHING! Try explaining to a 4yr old that he can’t have ice cream and cake at a cousin’s birthday party because it is a WM Bakery cake and Blue Bell ice cream and jammed with the chemical that makes him sick. They seem to tolerate the stuff somewhat now, but only because I can’t police their diet at school or everywhere else. Kids want what their friends eat. I just wish they had HFCS free options.

5 Dan { 01.21.11 at 9:41 am }

–>Marian… I was diagnosed with type II over 2 years ago. I began taking cinnamon capsules daily and I haven’t had a SINGLE high gluco reading since Oct 08!

6 Mel Free { 01.21.11 at 9:18 am }

Dr’s have known for years that if a baby “fails to thrive”, put it on Karo Syrup in it’s will pack on the pounds, fast!..I am living proof of this..I have fought all of my adult & childhood life to overcome these pounds that were given to me as a baby, because my parents & well meaning relatives & Dr. thought that I was underweight. …If I could undo anything, it would be this!

7 FoodMagick { 01.20.11 at 1:28 pm }

All sugars should be eaten in very strict moderation if we wish to stay healthy. HFCS is just another highly concentrated version of the same stuff, but we can’t blame obesity on this one thing. That’s the fallacy: there is no single thing we can point to because reality is there are so many ways we poison ourselves with all the processed food and chemicals we ingest on a daily basis.

Obesity has become an epidemic because we have been adding all this extra junk to our food for a few generations now. Deficiency is concentrated with each new generation–we start out weaker and then inherit all weaknesses of both parents–which is also why toddlers are getting breast cancer nowadays.
( )

Regenerative eating puts this whole process in reverse, so at least we CAN save ourselves… eventually…

8 Brian { 01.19.11 at 9:08 pm }

In my opinion the whole “New Coke – Old Coke” episode was in reality a device employed to make the transition from cane sugar HFCS. Unless of course you really do believe they dropped thier secret formula just to “taste more like Pepsi”.

9 D. { 01.19.11 at 4:32 pm }

TO: Cassandra Hancock — “…could remember why doctors are frowning on it”.
Doctors?? Doctors are frowning on HFCS? Doubtful. Conventional doctors support almost anything BigAgri does, including the artificial sweetners that are so bad for any living being – including animals who ingest it by accident.

Doctors don’t know diddly about nutrition because they don’t study nutrition. Ask your doctor how much of the curriculum in his med school studies involved nutrition. You’ll be shocked. The answer will about 8 seconds, if he’s honest with you. Nutrition, all the way from pre-pregnancy to birth to nourishing an infant/toddler, is all screwy in this country. We need to teach nutrient-dense eating practices, instead of convenience. It’s a heritage I learned from my two lovely Gramma’s and my Mom, and I’m teaching it to my daughter and my daughter-in-law. They don’t particularly like the extra work, but they are learning that a little extra work on a weekend will make the 5 day work week a lot easier and more healthy if the food is nutritious.

10 denise { 01.19.11 at 2:19 pm }

we do not buy any product containing HFCS period..we completely changed what we buy and no longer pay to be poisoned.

11 Marian { 01.19.11 at 12:03 pm }

I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes last january. reading labels and cutting out soda has brought my sugar down a lot. HFCS shoudl be banned!

12 E.J. Bisch { 01.19.11 at 10:09 am }

High Fructose Corn Syrup = poison

13 Cassandra Hancock { 01.19.11 at 9:40 am }

I saw a commercial supporting HFCS last night and could remember why doctors are frowning on it. Thanks for the reminder.

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