High Fructose Corn Syrup: If This Doesn't Convince You, Nothing Will

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:

“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?

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?

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.

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:

The Corn Refiners Associations website to promote HFCS

The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health?

Not so Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Dark Sugar: The decline and fall of high fructose corn syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup