It is late at night. If I am going to be writing this article on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), I am going to need a kick. I think I will satisfy my thirst with a Coca Cola Classic. SLURP! Yummy. Now if I was in a country outside the United States, my taste buds may tell my brain that the Coke I am drinking tastes a bit different. The difference is the sugar. The Coke I am drinking contains fructose and a glucose blend, also commonly referred to as HFCS. Fructose is a type of sugar found in honey and fruit. Glucose is our body’s preferred energy source and often referred to as blood sugar. People in other countries outside of the U.S, for example Mexico, drink their coke with primarily sucrose and zero HFCS. Sucrose is our basic table sugar. Why the difference? Why does a Coke in the United States have different ingredients than a Coke in Mexico? What is this stuff, HFCS? Is it good or bad for you? As a sugar, is it worse for you than sugar extracted from sugar cane? I will hopefully answer all these questions and lay out a vast amount of opinions on the matter. First, let’s take a trip back in time.
We humans love our energy. Ever since Eve convinced Adam to take a bite of that apple filled with fructose, sucrose, and glucose, we have been consuming sugar. HFCS is fairly new. While we as a human race have been obtaining sucrose from plants and sugar canes, we had not mastered the process of turning glucose into fructose and acquiring a liquid form. The Clinton Corn Processing Company of Clinton, Iowa was the first U.S company to seek out this venture. Don’t confuse these Clintons with Bill or Hillary. This is a Clinton company that originated in Iowa, not Arkansas. This company was trying to find a way to turn glucose from corn starch into fructose. They were not successful. Not many years after, a Japanese scientist named Yoshiyuki Takasak created a way to successfully refine the process of creating HFCS. The Clinton Company jumped aboard and began manufacturing early versions of HFCS. Then, Richard Nixon approved the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973. This allowed subsidies for all corn products. That means farmers would get paid for producing corn and they could sell it at a cheaper price. Why is all of this important? Why not just use real sugar? Sugar is expensive. It is much more expensive to get sugar from sugar canes than it is to purchase subsidized corn. Corn is produced, the glucose from the yeast is converted to fructose, and thousands of companies can profit from cheap sugar.
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
What exactly is HFCS anyway? The FDA approved it, by saying it was safe. So what is this EVIL thing all your health conscience friends are warning you about? HFCS is derived from corn starch. Starch itself is a chain of glucose molecules joined together. Glucose alone is a simple sugar. When people read HFCS in the ingredients on many of the foods Americans consume, they are not reading about a food containing simple sugar. They are reading about a product that is composed of many different sugars, mainly glucose and fructose, with varying compositions. The first step is converting the corn starch into corn syrup. Corn syrup alone is distinct from HFCS. Enzymes are added to the corn syrup to convert the individual glucose molecules into fructose. Fructose is often called “fruit sugar” because it comes from fruit. HFCS is high in fructose. Sucrose also contains glucose and fructose. So what is the difference between HFCS and sucrose?
Differences between HFCS and Sucrose:
- HFCS contains water.
- In sucrose, a chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose. Once one eats, stomach acid and gut enzymes rapidly break down this chemical bond. A complete one-to-one ratio of glucose and fructose.
- In HFCS, no chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose. An unbalanced ratio of glucose and fructose is formed. HFCS usually contains more fructose than glucose.
Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad For You?
HFCS is a sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that most women get no more than 100 calories a day of added sugar from any source, and that most men get no more than 150 calories a day of added sugar. That’s about 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar for women and 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams) for men. One can of a soft drink usually contains 6 or more teaspoons of sugar. Many will already get their recommended amount or more of sugar from just one soft drink. This is not mentioning all the other sugary items the average adult consumes. Here are some popular items and their sugar content in grams for one serving:
- Red Bull 27g
- Apple Juice 26g
- Oreo Cookies 14g
- Ketchup 17g
- Raisins 30g
- Twinkies 19g
- Yoplait Yogurt 27g
As one can see, it would be hard to stay within the recommended amount of sugar. All sugar, not just HFCS, contribute to the following when taken in large doses:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic Syndrome
- High Triglyceride Levels
All of the above boost one’s risk of heart disease. So what is the deal with HFCS? Why do people attack this specific type of sugar so often? There is actually insufficient evidence to say that HFCS is less healthy than other types of sweeteners. There lacks a scientific consensus. However, this claim does have its critics. I will outline some of the beliefs and facts below:
- HFCS is found in most sugary products. It is normal nowadays for kids to step into McDonalds and order a large coke or step into 7-Eleven and get a big gulp. A Double Gulp contains 186 grams of sugar, by the way. Companies are able to do this because of the government subsidies with corn. Perhaps sugar based products shouldn’t be so cheap? The corn subsidies are one way that makes HFCS prevalent, which despite one’s comparison to sugar cane, one can’t deny that the subsidies contribute to Americans consuming large amounts of sugar.
- HFCS is biochemically different and is not absorbed in our bodies in the same way. Glucose and fructose do not have that 50-50 ratio, as sucrose does. There usually is a larger amount of fructose, which is sweeter than glucose. HFCS does not have a chemical bond. This makes it so HFCS is more rapidly absorbed by the blood stream. Lipogenesis is the production of fats. Fructose has been studied to go straight to the liver to trigger this process. A large amount of Americans suffer from a condition known as “fatty liver” and HFCS may be the culprit of this and many other metabolic disturbances. It is the increase in fructose of HFCS that has many health and nutrition experts worried. High doses of fructose have been proven to punch holes in the intestinal lining. This allows toxic bacteria to enter the bloodstream and produce inflammation that can cause cancer, heart disease, dementia, and accelerated aging. Some health experts believe it is because the fructose that comes from HFCS is not natural like the fructose we receive from fruit.
- HFCS contains amounts of mercury. A Minneapolis based nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade policy bought 55 products containing HFCS and found that 17 out of the 55 products showed detectable levels of mercury. The researchers claim that they do not know what forms of Mercury these products contain and are not telling consumers to avoid buying the food items. The Corn Refinery Association is standing by the claim that HFCS is safe. Any amount of mercury found in food products may still be a cause for alarm for many people.
Foods that contain HFCS:
Here is a list of popular food items that contain HFCS. Keep in mind, to avoid generalizations, one should always check the food labels. While the foods I am about to name often contain HFCS in the states, it doesn’t mean that every product contains HFCS. These are popular items where one can find HFCS.
- Frozen Pizzas
- Cereal Bars
- Boxed Macaroni and Cheese
- Salad Dressing
- Apple Sauce
- Canned Fruit
- Soft Drinks
How to avoid HFCS? As I said before, always check food labels. However, here are some popular items that do not contain HFCS:
- Vegetables (HFCS has been sneaking into pickles)
- Rice (many other grains)
There are no specific instructions and advice one can give on HFCS. At this point, we know the negative effects of a diet that is consumed by too much sugar. There is not a scientific consensus, specifically, on HFCS. However, there have been numerous research reports done by respected groups outlining possible negative effects of HFCS. HFCS has not even been in American diets for a half century. One can only hope that we do not find out about severely negative effects of HFCS the hard way.