Eat Smart · Nutrition

Everything You Need to Know About High-Fructose Corn Syrup

What words come to mind when you hear the name “high-fructose corn syrup?” If any of them include “harmful,” “junk food,” or “unhealthy,” you share the same mindset as more than half of the U.S. According to the NPD group, a market research firm, 53 percent of all Americans now say they are concerned that high-fructose corn syrup may pose a health hazard. Most of us can find this term, abbreviated HFCS, on the nutrition labels of processed foods ranging anywhere from chewy granola bars to soft drinks. We have been told to avoid many of these products, like Coca Cola, Pop-Tarts, and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, for several other nutritional reasons, but now HFCS has become the nationwide blame for various health defects.

Developed in the 1960s as a convenient way to sweeten food, HFCS has become the most common added sweetener in the America, as well as one of the most successful food ingredients in modern history. Between 1970 and 1990, this sweetener came into widespread use with popular manufacturing properties like its low freezing point to retain moisture and its inability to mask flavors. Above all, however, the heavily subsidized corn crop in the U.S. makes HFCS very inexpensive. For instance, HFCS is made by extracting starch from corn and treating it to break the bonds between the glucose molecules. The resulting corn syrup is then treated to convert about half of the glucose to fructose. The industry knows HFCS as 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, creating debate due to the greater concentration of fructose in the solution.

Increased consumption of HFCS has been shown to parallel increased obesity, which in turn intensifies the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Several people argue that the impact of HFCS consumption on weight gain is due to the greater amount of fructose than glucose found in the syrup versus that found in 1970s most common sweetener, sucrose. When excess is consumed, fructose is converted to fat more readily than glucose. In addition, fructose does not stimulate the release of hormones that suppress appetite or inhibit the release of hormones that stimulate appetite as effectively as glucose. When consumed, glucose gets absorbed into the bloodstream and ushered, with the help of insulin, into fat and muscle tissue. On the other hand, the majority of fructose, when consumed, travels to the liver where it stimulates the production of triglycerides. A buildup of these triglycerides often coincides with insulin resistance and is a strong risk factor for heart disease.

Although many Americans have speculations regarding the switch from sucrose to HFCS, it is still unclear whether the small differences in the proportion of glucose to fructose in HFCS have led to the obesity epidemic. Of course, it would be unreasonable to deem a single additive the major risk of harmful health conditions like obesity and heart disease when several other variables must be evaluated to improve overall health. Hunt’s ketchup, along with Gatorade, Wheat Thins, and the baked goods at Starbucks, have all replaced HFCS with regular sugar. Either way, it is important to recognize that in the end, sugar is sugar, and HFCS will not cause harm in moderation.

By Allison Milch