High Fructose Corn Syrup: The Facts
HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) is a hot topic among health and fitness buffs. They cite studies showing a direct correlation between increased HFCS consumption and obesity. They also point to research that documents mercury in HFCS products. Researchers have also discovered a difference between HFCS in liquids versus its solid state and how it could affect obesity. There is much confusion regarding HFCS because of a counter-offensive by the corn and refiners industries who seek to dispel the fear associated with their products. I want my kids to eat healthy foods. I want them to be safe. But, should I be like the hippies and be fearful of all businesses that use artificial food additives? It’s possible, very possible. Or should I believe the corn industry when they say there is nothing to fear but fear itself? If HFCS is really what the corn people say it is then I should have nothing to worry about. Is what they say true? Well, I’ve done some research to find out the answer to that. I’ve scoured the internet looking for credible sources and scientists who can tell me what I want to know. Very basically I want to know if it is safe.
What is it?
Table sugar is a combination of fructose and glucose which are both simple sugars produced naturally by plants. The combination is called sucrose. Corn syrup is mainly glucose produced from corn starch. There is no naturally occurring fructose in corn which is why corn isn’t sweet. But, in the 1950’s, scientists found a way to convert the glucose in corn into fructose. The resulting concoction is 90% fructose (and therefore very very sweet). That fructose is mixed with the corn syrup, which is glucose (and not sweet), until a 45/55 balance is reached (fructose being the higher percentage). And, presto, HFCS! Later, in the 1970’s, the process was scaled and we saw the birth of the HFCS boom.
Why is it Used?
HFCS has three things going for it that make it attractive to the food industry. The first is that it is cheap. In 2007 the cost of 1 dry pound of HFCS was roughly 32 cents. At the same time, the cost of refined sugar was 52 cents per dry pound. It is no wonder that the food industry uses it keep costs down! The second reason it’s used is that it is more easily dissolved in liquid. The solubility of HFCS makes it an attractive choice for the beverage industry. The first ingredient after water in most drinks is HFCS. It is not impossible to find drinks without HFCS, but it’s getting more difficult every year. One easy solution is to not buy juice and soda drinks at all and instead drink tea which contains no sugar at all and still tastes good. The third reason HFCS is used instead of regular sugar is that it acts as a preservative thereby extending shelf life and reducing the use of other preservatives. From the perspective of the food industry HFCS is a miracle additive. More sweet than regular sugar, almost half the price, and it’s also a preservative. I don’t blame the industry for pushing it. But, as consumers, we have a responsibility to be skeptical of people who want our money.
There are two credible health concerns concerning HFCS. There are plenty of bloggers who seem to have all the answers but no scientific research to back them up. I’d like to add some facts to the debate. The first big concern that has come up in recent years is mercury. Mercury, caustic soda, and hydrochloric acid are apparently used in processing some HFCS. There were tests done in 2005 that showed that a full third of all HFCS products contain some amount of mercury. The findings are disputed by the sugar refiners. The other health concern with HFCS is its role in obesity. Remember that HFCS has more fructose content than regular sugar. The study I cite demonstrates that HFCS in liquid is a greater factor in obesity than it is in its solid form. The study also shows that the fructose content of HFCS can sometimes be as high as 65% in drinks. The rats in the study gained significantly more weight when HFCS was in their water supply than when it was in their food. The conclusion is this: If you’re going to invest energy in avoiding HFCS, drinks should be the first place to start.
The Argument For
We have all seen the backlash from consumers against HFCS. People like me are all over the internet doing research trying to find out about it. The corn industry and the refiners have started their own counter offensive. They claim there is no danger in HFCS and that the research done so far that criticizes HFCS is dubious. We have also seen all the commercials on TV and in print. Of course, all the actors and models used in these advertisements are fit and healthy looking which is not surprising. There is nobody who looks like a pimpled old whale. Now go to the drink isle at the grocery store and tell me what real HFCS consumers look like. Do they look like the actors or the sea-mammals? Now, what do the people shopping from the organic and natural sections of the store look like? That’s probably all the evidence you need. It is obvious that the argument for HFCS is just as slanted as many arguments against it. Everything, including the color of their website (green, blue and yellow), and the actors hired to pose as regular HFCS consumers, is designed to deceive. But propaganda, regardless of the industry or issue, is always slated. It’s our responsibility to find scientists who don’t have a horse in the race.
I conclude that HFCS in drinks is the devil’s work. But, I don’t drink soda anyway so I don’t really care. Other parents might care though. My other conclusion is that I have no way to determine which HFCS products have mercury and which do not. I cannot, in good conscience, feed anything to my kids that might contain even the slightest amount of mercury (even though negligible amounts are in many products). It’s very simple. I do not believe that HFCS will make me fat if it’s used in moderation. In that I agree with the industry. However, it is such a widely used product that avoiding it is extremely difficult. How can I not eat too much of it if eating itself requires that I consume HFCS? The only way to avoid it is to shop in the natural sections of my grocery store. That’s what I’ll have to do. The industry has flooded our food supply with HFCS to such a degree that their suggestion of eating it in moderation is absolutely laughable. Our only option is naturally produced foods that are pushed by farmers rather than corn intermediaries (which is a discussion for another day).