Ever since the blowup over MomCentral and the Corn Refiners Association mommy blogger campaign, I’ve been trying to search out some objective information about high fructose corn syrup. What is the truth?
In my post High Fructose Propaganda, I linked to what research I had found (but I put the post up quickly, there’s not months of thesis work there, people. Obviously.)
So let’s take a look at some common questions about HFCS:
Is it natural?
First the FDA said it wasn’t natural, then said it was natural if it’s made using a specific process as outlined by food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. How was the HFCS in your drink made? You’ll never know.
High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a natural grain product. High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) requirements for use of the term “natural.”
Actually, the FDA does not even define what “natural” is.
FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
So basically, the CRA uses “natural” and the FDA just won’t say anything about it.
The Corn Refiners Association strenously objected to petitions asking the FDA to define “natural”, saying it would be “a waste of resources.”
But whether it fits an arbitrary technical definition, and whether it is what most people would consider natural are different things. In my opinion, HFCS is not natural. You won’t find it in nature. It must be produced in a lab or industrial setting.
HFCS should be called corn sugar, because it’s not actually high in fructose, right?
No. Regular corn syrup is glucose (dextrose) and doesn’t contain fructose at all. High fructose corn syrup contains 42%, 55%, or 90% fructose, depending on the blend. So HFCS definitely contains more fructose than regular corn syrup, and may or may not contain more fructose than table sugar.
Is it the same as table sugar?
No, it is not. Let’s have a quick sugar primer. Sugars are made of molecules. A “sugar” is a carbohydrate molecule that dissolves in water and tastes sweet.
Monosaccarides have one molecule. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are the three monosaccarides you probably eat most often. All other sugars are made up of combos of the monosaccharides.
Disaccharides are made of two monosaccharides that are bonded. Sucrose (table sugar) is a disaccharide- it’s one glucose molecule bonded to one fructose molecule. Lactose, the sugar found in milk, is also a disaccharide. It’s made of a galactose molecule bonded to a glucose molecule. Maltose is two glucose molecules.
Polysaccharides are made up of lots of saccharide molecules, and aren’t really sugars. Starches and cellulose are examples of polysaccharides.
So, is HFCS the same as sucrose (table sugar)?
Not exactly. While HFCS and sucrose both contain fructose and glucose, they are different. Sucrose is one glucose and one fructose (a 1:1 ratio) bonded to make a disaccharide.
HFCS has glucose and fructose molecules in varying amounts, (42%, 55%, or 90% fructose), and they are not bonded. It is a solution of monosaccharides.
The real question is whether ingesting HFCS, with ‘free’ fructose, is more damaging than ingesting sugar, with bonded fructose. The bond between glucose and fructose is broken by an enzyme in the intestine, effectively making sucrose into two monosaccharides, too. At that point the metabolism of sucrose or HFCS would be the same, because they would both be unbonded fructose and glucose molecules.
But does eating HFCS (unbonded fructose) have any effects before it gets to the intestine? The jury’s still out on that one.
I’ll be calling sucrose “sugar” in this article, because that’s the common name for it.
So what’s the big deal about the fructose?
Fructose is processed in the liver (unlike glucose). Many studies have been done on fructose and it has been found to be associated with liver scarring in non-alcoholics, raise triglycerides, been linked to heart disease, and cause pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome; fructose has recently been found to increase the proliferation of cancer cells.
So, it has been researched that fructose is a problem and affects the body negatively in ways that glucose does not. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has a brief summary of some of the fructose studies.
HFCS has not been specifically studied; it has been extrapolated that because HFCS contains fructose, often in larger quanities than sugar, that HFCS contributes to these diseases. The CRA says that the studies simply show that fructose causes problems, not HFCS and there haven’t really been any head to head studies on HFCS vs. sugar.
On the other hand, HFCS hasn’t been proven safe in long term studies. There are no studies that show it doesn’t contribute to obesity, cause liver scarring, and other ailments.
But the AMA says it doesn’t cause obesity, right?
No, the American Medical Association said: (emphasis mine)
Only a few small, short-term experimental studies have compared the effects of HFCS to sucrose, and most involved some form of industry support. Epidemiological studies on HFCS and health outcomes are unavailable, beyond ecological studies, because nutrient databases do not contain information on the HFCS content of foods…
…it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose. Nevertheless, few studies have evaluated the potentially differential effect of various sweeteners, particularly as they relate to health conditions such as obesity, which develop over relatively long periods of time.
The AMA wants more studies to determine the effect and said evidence so far is that it doesn’t contribute to obesity more than sugar. There aren’t enough studies on HFCS to justify a warning label, because we simply don’t know enough about HFCS (for me, that’s an argument against using it. We don’t know what the long term health outcomes are of using it? Count me out.)
The AMA also told consumers to limit sugar intake. The World Health Organization recommends total sugar consumption from all sources should be 10% or less of total calories; that translates to 50g. or less if you are on a 2,000 calorie diet.
A 20 oz. CocaCola, sweetened with HFCS, has 65g of sugar, more than the WHO recommended daily intake.
So HFCS isn’t the same as all the other sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup, agave, and sugar? Other sweeteners also have fructose, so we shouldn’t single out HFCS.
HFCS is 90%, 55%, or 42% fructose, depending on the type. Most soft drinks are sweetened with the 55% fructose type of HFCS. HFCS was invented in the 1960s.
Agave nectar/syrup is 90%-56% fructose, depending on what type of agave was used. Commercial agave syrups were invented in the 1990s. (Note: Agave nectar is a processed, non-traditional sweetener that is primarily fructose. Yes, I was fooled too! I have a whole bottle of it collecting dust in my pantry. See reasons above for why fructose isn’t good for you.)
Sugar (sucrose) is about 50% fructose, 50% glucose (bonded). Crystallized sugar from canes has been used by humans since the 4th century. Sugar beets are likely to be GMO, but sugar cane probably isn’t because the marketing of GMO cane was a big marketing failure. Molasses and turbinado sugar are types of sucrose.
Honey is 38%-40% fructose (levulose and fructose are the same thing, just as dextrose and glucose are the same thing.) Humans have been using honey as a sweetener for all of recorded history, and probably before.
Maple Syrup is about 33% fructose, depending on the grade. (Remember, sucrose is 1:1 ratio of fructose to glucose). Maple syrup has been used as a sweetener for over 500 years; it’s basically boiled sap.
Corn Syrup has no fructose. Corn syrup is not the same as high fructose corn syrup. It’s mostly glucose, with some maltose. Corn syrup may also be made from GMO corn (for the record, GMO field corn is inedible unless processed; the corn on the cob you throw on the grill is not GMO field corn.) Corn Syrup has been around since the 1880s.
Stevia is a non-carbohydrate sweetener that contains no fructose. It’s the dried and ground up leaves of a plant and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia was first described in Western literature in the 1500s, but it was used to sweeten drinks and foods before that time.
What about GMOs?
HFCS is made from a genetically modified organism – GMO corn. While the CRA claims that HFCS is made from “whole grain corn”, they also claim that there’s no reason to worry about GMO corn because HFCS is so highly processed there’s no corn DNA left.
There’s enough “corn” left in it, though, that you can’t eat it if you’re allergic to corn. Of course, the Corn Refiners Association also says that corn allergy doesn’t really exist at all. Wonder if they are “confused” and “misinformed”?
If you want to avoid GMO foods (which have not been tested for long term safety, and let’s not even get into Monsanto’s unethical, gestapo business practices), don’t eat HFCS.
The issue of GMO food isn’t black and white, and goes far beyond how much altered DNA a person actually ingests. There are broad ecological, economical, and social justice issues at play, here, too. GMOs haven’t been tested for safety, and preliminary studies seem to show that GMOs may be harmful.
Why is HFCS cheaper than table sugar?
Subsidies, taxes, and tariffs artificially depress the cost of HFCS, while white sugar costs more in America than in the rest of the world. The reason HFCS is so “cheap” is because we’re paying for it through our taxes long before we spend our paycheck in the grocery line.
It’s not cheaper, but since we’re not paying the complete cost out of our wallet when we purchase food, we don’t notice it.
HFCS is in so many products it’s virtually impossible to eat it in moderation unless you make foods yourself. It’s in a lot of products that traditionally were never sweetened with sugars at all – tomato paste, spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, ketchup, applesauce, pickle relish, bran flakes, lunchmeat, yogurt, soups, crackers, and more.
In fact, the Corn Refiners Association’s main “educational” point is that HFCS and sugar are the same and interchangeable, and doctors, nutritionists, and fitness experts all agree that we should limit our intake of sugars of all kinds.
The National Institute of Health makes a point to say that:
Fructose, a naturally found sugar in many fruits, is now commonly used as an industrial sweetener and is excessively consumed in Western diets.
That excess fructose consumption isn’t because people are suddenly eating more apples and grapefruit. Americans consume an estimated 200 calories – 10% of a 2,000 calorie diet- in HFCS alone.
In 1978 – the year I was born – Americans consumed an estimated 10 pounds of HFCS a year. In the 2000, it was 63 pounds.
What burning HFCS questions do you still have? Ask in the comments!
(Please note, I am not a nutritionist. I am a mom trying to make sense of all this information so I can feed my family healthy, nutritious foods.)
Want to see what the Washington, D.C. corn lobby says? Watch the MomCentral CRA webinar.
Check out We Eat Too Much HFCS.