Ask anyone and I’ll bet they would say that consuming high-fructose corn syrup is unhealthy. Google it and I’ll bet your browser will be filled with warnings of how “toxic” it is, how it “will kill you”, or its “dangers and side effects”. The general consensus is that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) causes obesity and should be avoided. Whether or not those assumptions are actually true is yet to be confirmed with 100% certainty, and many facts about high-fructose corn syrup and its effects on health are quite surprising. One thing that is for sure is that this food ingredient has gotten quite a bad reputation from the media and Internet health gurus. I would argue that there is a bigger topic here; the media and Internet sway the publics’ perception of many things and create hype over facts that may or may not be true.
Humans have been consuming sugar in the form of sucrose (common table sugar) from sugar cane or sugar beets for centuries. Furthermore, humans were of course also consuming natural sugar from fruits and honey way before commercial sugar production came into play. However, processed sugar is not usually produced in the United States so it must be imported for use in food products or in households. Due to increased import tariffs on sugar in 1977, food producers in the U.S. sought to find a cheaper way to sweeten their products as sucrose was becoming too expensive. Many producers decided to use high-fructose corn syrup, which was first created a few decades earlier, but not widely used. They found it to be more economical since it was derived from corn, which was abundant due to government subsidies for farmers to grow it. Food manufacturers found HFCS to be very favorable in their products since it was more stable than sucrose, and easier to transport and handle. From then on the use of HFCS in food production began to steadily grow.
High-fructose corn syrup is made by milling corn into cornstarch, which is then processed into corn syrup. Corn syrup is almost entirely made out of glucose, so in order to increase the amount of fructose; some of the glucose must be converted into fructose. This is done by adding enzymes, alpha-amylase, glucoamylase, and xylose isomerase. Alpha-amylase can be found in human saliva and within the digestive system, and is used by the body to break down polysaccharides, such as starch, into oligosaccharides. Glucoamylase is also found in the human digestive system and is used to break down polysaccharides even more into monosaccharides that can be used as energy for the body. Xylose isomerase converts glucose to a mixture of 42% fructose and 50-52% glucose. Next, the mixture is passed through a liquid chromatography step, which separates out the unfavorable components. This yields a solution that is about 90% fructose, which is blended back into the 42% fructose solution to create one that is about 55% fructose. This is the final product, save for impurity removal steps.
Many people might find it surprising that HFCS does not differ greatly from other sources of sugar in a typical American diet. As stated above, cane sugar and beet sugar are basically pure sucrose, which we know simply as sugar. Sucrose is a disaccharide made up of glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio that is broken down into separate monosaccharides of glucose and fructose when digested in the body. Surprisingly, HFCS contains almost the same 1:1 ratio of glucose and fructose as typical sucrose. Then why is it called high-fructose corn syrup when it does not contain an unusually high amount of fructose? The name was given to distinguish this particular corn syrup from normal corn syrup, which is primarily glucose and low in fructose. Similarly, honey typically has a glucose-to-fructose ratio close to that of HFCS. Honey also contains some water like HFCS and affords 3 calories per gram just as HFCS does. Indeed, HFCS has even been used in the illegal adulteration of honey.
So why the bad reputation? HFCS just seems like sucrose’s friendly cousin. Why is it linked to an increased rate of obesity? It just so happens that the rate of increase of HFCS in the production of food correlates remarkably well with the increased rate of obesity. I would argue that this piece of data alone is not enough to prove the toxicity of HFCS. In the past forty years, the amount of calories consumed by the average American has increased by 24%. To say that HFCS or any sweetener is uniquely the cause of obesity, there must be an increase of added sugars during that time period, but added sugars actually decreased about 1% over that time period and added fat increased by 5%. Could added fat be the culprit? Furthermore, the change from sucrose being the primary sweetener in food products to HFCS did not occur overnight and a large jump in the consumption of fructose compared to that of sucrose did not occur. In fact, the change occurred slowly and today each sweetener is used about equally. A common argument is not that HFCS as a sweetener uniquely causes obesity or bad health effects, but that sugar of any kind may be a contributing factor.
High-fructose corn syrup and especially fructose is not without fault, however. When a single nutrient, such as fructose is consumed in excess, it overwhelms the body’s metabolic capacity and can cause problems. The same could be said for consuming excess of anything, really; our bodies are built to consume a variety of different nutrients and thereby prompt us to consume a variety of foods so that we can access all the nutrients we need. Whether or not HFCS is or is not the cause of obesity and is unhealthy overall is still up in the air. However, the case of a food ingredient like HFCS just goes to show how important it is to eat a variety of foods and to not over consume products like soda and sweets.
What may be the most interesting piece of information in the story of HFCS is the way it grew to be regarded as such a terrible thing. What concerns me is the fact that people are almost not allowed to come to their own conclusion about this food ingredient or really anything else. Why is it that I have to dig and dig on the Internet to find a source on any topic that presents both sides of the story in an unbiased way? HFCS is only one example of how one-sided the Internet and media can be. What else are typical consumers supposed to think when they run a Google search on HFCS and find article after article on how it will kill them? Imagine how it could be if anyone was able to decide for themselves where they stand on a particular subject.
The debate on the healthfulness of high-fructose corn syrup will no doubt be a reoccurring one, but it should not be a one-sided debate. I encourage all people to research deeply and widely on this topic and any others of concern and to read both sides of the argument. We all have a say on this debate and many others, but we also have the right to inform ourselves. Sometimes, that information is beyond the first page of a Google search.
White, J. S. “Straight Talk about High-fructose Corn Syrup: What It Is and What It Ain’t.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 88.6 (2008): 1716S-721S.