There’s a debate raging in the media, amongst moms and families, and even within the medical and scientific communities about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some believe that HFCS is approximately “equal” to sugar in terms of chemical structure, sweetening power, and health effects, but others are claiming HFCS is responsible for everything from obesity to diabetes. To better understand the issue, below are some common questions and answers.
What is HFCS?
Simply put, HFCS is a liquid sweetener, made from corn, that is used to sweeten a variety of products, including sodas, juices, prepared foods, ketchup, sauces, salad dressings and hundreds of other items. It was discovered in 1957, industrialized for mass production in the early 1970s, and made widely available in the US in the 1980s. For a fun example of how HFCS is made (along with a dose of humor and political savvy), check out the documentary, “King Corn,” about two recent college graduates who buy a single acre of farmland in Iowa to grow corn and then venture into making HFCS in their kitchen. http://www.kingcorn.net/
What’s the difference between sugar and HFCS?
Chemically, the two are very similar. Each is a combination of two natural sugars (glucose and fructose). Table sugar is approximately 50% fructose and 50% glucose, while the most commonly used version of HFCS is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose. HFCS typically has a longer shelf life than sugar and is easily portable in its liquid form, and thus is a convenient and desirable ingredient for sweetening packaged or processed foods. While it’s often believed that ounce for ounce, HFCS is sweeter than sugar, both have approximately the same level of sweetness and the same calories (4 calories per gram).
Why is HFCS so controversial?
HFCS strikes a highly political note in terms of its origins and production. Many believe that the US is over-producing corn, due to ongoing government subsidies paid to farmers to grow corn. And, increasingly, much of the corn grown in the US is grown from genetically modified seeds (seeds that have been altered to be pest resistant, drought resistant or otherwise “non-native” seeds). The science on the effects of genetic modification is still largely in flux: food products grown from modified seeds appear to be safe, but they have not been studied long enough to conclude there are no ill effects on humans, animals, or the environment. Additionally, the massive production of cheap and often modified corn has created a surplus – more corn than we need to eat or feed animals with – and thus, new ways to use all this extra corn were needed. Because of the subsidies and the surplus of corn, HFCS is a very inexpensive sweetener to produce. And because it is so cheap to produce and use, it is found virtually everywhere, from breads to beverages to everything in between. As of 2008, about half of all sweeteners used in the US was HFCS.
What about health impacts of HFCS?
The increasing usage of HFCS in beverages and other food products parallels the increasing rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other related diseases in the US. Since the 1970’s and 80s, we have seen increased rates of sugar consumption, as well increases in the average calorie intake and the average weight of both children and adults. Because of the similar timing between growing obesity rates and HFCS usage, fructose and HFCS have been at the center of a great deal of research and debate.
Additionally, it is known that fructose is metabolized by the body via a slightly different process as compared to glucose or other natural sugars. This is some of the basis for concern regarding the health impacts of HFCS. Fructose is largely metabolized by the liver, unlike glucose (the latter of which goes straight into your blood stream and waiting organs after being digested by your intestines). Over-consumption of fructose can lead to the storage of excess fructose as fat in the liver, putting individuals at risk for fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, liver failure, insulin resistance and other serious health problems. Recent studies have also shown that high concentrations of fructose can decrease satiety (feelings of fullness after eating) and increase hunger levels, leading to over-eating and weight gain. For a highly entertaining (and very opinionated) lecture on more of the potential perils of fructose, check out the UCSF’s Dr. Robert Lustig’s very popular YouTube lecture. He also has a new book out, which I’m looking forward to reading, called Fat Chance
Ultimately, hundreds of scientific studies have been conducted over the last 5-10 years to evaluate the effects of eating or drinking large quantities of fructose, with varying results. Some studies have shown that high amounts of fructose may interfere with or alter the body’s normal metabolic processes, which can lead to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, gout and other related diseases. However, to date, the research cannot 100% conclusively point to HFCS as “worse” (or better!) than regular table sugar when it comes to your health.
What’s the bottom line for my health?
Sugar, in any form and in large quantities, can have adverse impacts on your health and the health of your family. For young children with growing bodies and developing teeth, sugar can cause cavities and lead to the consumption of too many calories, resulting in overweight or obesity. As mentioned above, excess sugar and calories can also lead to metabolic issues, including type 2 diabetes. Americans eat about 80 pounds of sugar each year (which averages out to about 21 sugar cubes per day, or 8,000 sugar cubes each year!). This means that Americans are eating more than 300 calories per day just in sugar. Yuk. Thus, it’s wise to minimize overall consumption of all sweeteners and products that contain them if you can. If you’re looking for something sweet, choose whole fruit, healthy veggies like sweet potatoes and yams, and make sure to eat a balanced diet.
- American Medical Association, The Health Effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup, http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/csaph/csaph3a08-summary.pdf
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf
- Sugar: The Bitter Truth, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM
- Harvard Health Publications/Harvard Heart Newsletter: Abundance of fructose not good for the liver, heart, http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Heart_Letter/2011/September/abundance-of-fructose-not-good-for-the-liver-heart
- The Truth about High Fructose Corn Syrup: http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/nutrition_articles.asp?id=486
- Straight Talk About High Fructose Corn Syrup: What it is and what it ain’t, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/88/6/1716S.full
- King Corn, the movie, http://www.kingcorn.net/