Let’s start at the beginning – what is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)?
Sugar as we know it traditionally came from sugar cane and later from sugar beets. HFCS was developed from corn in the late 1950s, refined for industrial production in the 1970s, and introduced into many processed foods from 1975-1985 - a big dietary and nutritional change that went largely unnoticed over the past 35 years.
One clue into what HFCS is – it was developed in a lab, not grown and milled. There is a long process that corn goes through to become HFCS, you can read a good description here.
A simple (ha, I just read it again, it’s not simple) explanation is that corn is milled into corn starch, then processed to yield corn syrup (which is almost entirely glucose), then enzymes are added to change the glucose into fructose. The fructose, which is very sweet, is mixed with the first round of corn syrup to make it the strength that is needed, most often 42 or 55 percent fructose. It is highly refined, extremely sweet and has preservative properties.
Why is HFCS bad for our health?
There are many theories about HFCS and its connection to personal health. You can find studies stating that it is no worse for a person than regular sugar, and studies saying that HFCS leads to obesity, diabetes, cancer ‘ because of its synthetic makeup. HFCS is in thousands of processed foods including, but not limited to: bread, peanut butter, ketchup, tomato sauce, soda, fast food, cereal, salad dressing, yogurt, sauces, jam/jelly, ice cream – you get the idea.
If we compare HFCS to sugar with the theory that the two are no different, they are still both problematic for our health. Sugar, which for hundreds of years was eaten only in very small quantities, is today consumed in enormous amounts in the U.S. (some estimates range up to 150 pounds per person per year), contributing greatly to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other health problems, many of them preventable. Moderation is the key for the healthy inclusion of sweeteners in our diets, whether sugar or HFCS.
If we look at HFCS as a synthetic creation that is different from plain old white sugar, some of the concerns that arise are:
- Because of the way that HFCS is processed in the body, it is said to limit the secretion of the hormone leptin, which signals the body that we've had enough to eat. Without the proper signal to stop eating, we consume more than necessary.
- Insulin resistance is also caused by the way HFCS is processed in the body.
- HFCS is sweeter than most sugars. Because of this, our taste buds adjust to sweeter and sweeter products, causing cravings for more sugar and leading to an unhealthy diet.
- Mercury has been found in HFCS. Part of the production process often uses mercury-grade caustic soda. Mercury was recently found in 9 out of 20 samples from 3 different manufacturers.
- The corn used to make HFCS is mostly genetically modified varieties. Genetically modified food presents a whole other set of problems that I will address as part of this series. When the Corn Refiners Association was questioned about GMO corn in HFCS, they defended themselves by saying,
“While the corn used to produce high fructose corn syrup may or may not have been produced using genetically enhanced corn, existing scientific literature and current testing results indicate that corn DNA cannot be detected in measurable amounts in high fructose corn syrup .”
Hmmm, what did it turn into? Didn’t it start out as corn?
- The rapid rise in obesity in the U.S. correlates to the introduction of HFCS into processed food.
- Type 2 diabetes is on the rise, and is often linked to HFCS.
- HFCS can cause mineral imbalances in the body, converts to fat more than other sugars, and can increase the concentration of uric acid, slow down the immune system, among other notable side effects in the body.
With all of these problems, why would we continue to ingest this supposed “food?” In fact, many companies are now moving away from HFCS, replacing it with “real sugar.” That’s enough for me to believe something is wrong with it. A few of the companies that have started to make a switch in some of their products are Pepsi, Coke, Pizza Hut, Kraft, and ConAgra, big names! Sweet Surprise, the Corn Refiners Association’s website defending HFCS, pops up on any website I consulted for this blog post that had Google advertising (paid ads come onto the site matching the topic of the site). They are trying hard to dispel the truth - HFCS is not a positive nutritional addition to anyone’s diet.
Sustainability Issues Related to High Fructose Corn Syrup
How does HFCS relate to sustainable food and agriculture?
- Corn is a heavily subsidized crop in the U.S. Because of this, many farmers grow corn and nothing else. People often say that our government is subsidizing obesity by continuing corn subsidies. The subsidies keep farmers from growing vegetables and fruit and from growing diversified crops ‘ a very important part of sustainable agriculture.
- Most of the corn used for HFCS is genetically modified. In fact, it is hard to stay away from GMO corn even if you want to. The Sethness Caramel Color company had this to say about their caramel color made from corn: “In the United States, genetically modified varieties of yellow dent corn are not segregated from traditional yellow dent corn. Consequently, corn wet millers purchasing corn on the open market are most probably using an agricultural raw material that does contain some GMO corn.” Yellow dent corn is most of the corn crop in the U.S. and is not edible by humans.
- HFCS has replaced sugar in many processed foods mostly due to the fact that it is cheaper than sugar. It is cheaper than sugar because of taxpayer-funded government subsidies for corn and government tariffs on imports of sugar. Basing decisions about food on the cheapest product available is what led to the industrial food system that we are now fighting against.
- Intensive corn production is taxing on the environment, especially on soil and water.
How to Avoid HFCS?
It’s not new news to most people that HFCS isn’t good for you, but it’s still confusing. Because it’s so confusing, my gut instinct is to just eliminate HFCS from my diet. HFCS is most likely damaging to my health, so I don’t want to ingest it.
- Start reading labels, don’t buy anything with HFCS. The less HFCS in your diet, the more your taste buds will adjust to less sweet flavors. One popular product that has HFCS is Heinz Ketchup. Kids (and adults) love ketchup! If you buy the Heinz organic ketchup, the ingredients don’t include HFCS. Don’t forget to keep in mind that it still contains sugar! You can also buy organic brands of ketchup with no sugar if you prefer that route.
- Use natural sweeteners (in moderation) – raw honey, sucanat, maple syrup, agave (bonus ‘ low glycemic index), fruit juice, apple sauce, brown rice syrup – be creative.
- Cut out soda. Even if that soda doesn’t have HFCS, one can of soda includes the total amount of added sugars that a person should have in a day.
- 100% Fruit juice is a great soda replacement, but it still has lots of sugar, cut it with water or seltzer for a refreshing treat. Or have a glass of water with lemon.
- Cook. When you cook, you can control what goes into your food. I sweeten desserts with apple sauce and salad dressings with agave.
Ease into this! If you start reading your labels and realize that you are buying many products with HFCS, pick one to eliminate, and see how it goes. Find a good replacement for the product, and soon you will be ready to tackle the next.
I'm sure this has brought up questions, please feel free to comment below.
This series “Sustainable Food: If This Doesn’t Convince You, Nothing Will” is by Dawn Brighid, marketing manager for Sustainable Table, a program of GRACE.
A few articles and websites for further reading: