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High Fructose Corn Syrup

They tell us High Fructose Corn Syrup has all kinds of health risks. Is there really any reason to avoid this common sugar substitute?

High fructose corn syrup, the popular artificial sweetener, has been controversial ever since it was first introduced. So what exactly is it, and why the controversy?

All sugars, of which ordinary table sugar is the most familiar, consist of various combinations of the basic building blocks: monosaccharides, or single sugars. A molecule of table sugar consists of one glucose, and one fructose, chemically bonded into what we call a disaccharide, or two sugars.

High fructose corn syrup consists of the same two monosaccharides; the only difference is that they're not bonded together. This one change makes it a liquid instead of a crystalline solid.

Liquid sugar gives food manufacturers several important benefits. It's easier to transport and handle in liquid form. It has certain advantages in baking, browning, and fermentability. It doesn't recrystallize after baking like sugar can, and makes foods moister. And perhaps most significantly, it allows the proportion of glucose and fructose to be adjusted. HFCS 55, which is 55% fructose, has a sweetness comparable to sugar and is used mainly in soft drinks. HFCS 42 is 42% fructose, and is a little less sweet than sugar and is used in most other foods.

But cost is also a huge factor. In the United States, we can grow our corn; but we have to import our sugar. Countries all hit each other with import tariffs, so high fructose corn syrup is cheaper in North America, and sugar is cheaper in South America. That's the reason Coca-Cola is different north or south of the border.

Now when you eat sugar, the very first thing your digestive system does is to break this bond. This starts happening the moment the sugar hits your saliva. This makes sugar and high fructose corn syrup, chemically, exactly the same thing.

The Internet is bursting at the seams with warnings that high fructose corn syrup is somehow poisonous or toxic or more harmful than regular sugar. The one place you won't find these warnings is in the scientific literature, where we consistently find there's no significant difference in their effect on the body, just as basic chemistry predicts.

There's one warning about high fructose corn syrup that's exactly the same as for sugar: YOU SHOULDN'T EAT EITHER ONE OF THEM; they're all empty calories that just make you fat. Any added sweetener exceeds the amount of sugars your body actually needs, which you already get from any normal diet.

Brian Dunning

Brian Dunning

References & Further Reading

Hu, Frank. Obesity epidemiology. New York: Oxford University Press, US, 2008. 27.

Melanson K.J., Zukley L., Lowndes J., Nguyen V., Angelopoulos T.J., Rippe J.M. "Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption on circulating glucose, insulin, leptin, and ghrelin and on appetite in normal-weight women." Nutrition. 3 Mar. 2007, Volume 23, Issue 2: 103-112.

Sizer, F., Whitney, E. Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2007. 105.

Stanhope, K.L., Griffen, S.C., Bair B.R., Swarbrick M.M., Keim N.L., Havel P.J. "Twenty-four-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles following consumption of high-fructose corn syrup-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened beverages with meals." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1 May 2008, Volume 87, Issue 5: 1194-1203.

USDA. "Foreign Agricultural Service." Administering Sugar Imports. United States Department of Agriculture, 15 Dec. 2009. Web. 10 Jan. 2010. <http://www.fas.usda.gov/itp/imports/ussugar.asp>

White, J. "HCFS: How Sweet It Is." Food Product Design. Virgo Publishing, LLC., 2 Dec. 2008. Web. 9 Jun. 2009. <http://www.foodproductdesign.com/articles/2008/12/hfcs-how-sweet-it-is.aspx>

 

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