May’s Nutrition Hot Topic: Will Someone Please Tell Me What The Deal Is With High Fructose Corn Syrup Already?! (Part I)

(Could that title be any longer?)


Let me start out by saying at times this topic can be so frustrating it can feel like another bewildering game of Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego, but I’m going to try my best. You know those high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) commercials where the question is posed as to why HFCS is bad and the responder can’t come up with a single reason? Well, if you haven’t, you’re not missing anything. Regardless, they make me laugh.  Not only are they awful, they’re also true to a certain extent.  Below is a link to one such gem of a commercial if you’re so inclined.

There is so much information out there about this stuff.  It’s good.  It’s bad.  It’s going to run as the Republican Candidate in the 2012 election.  Mitt Romney who?! Let me tell you folks, it’s views on healthcare and tax reform may give the Democratic Candidate a run for his (or her, but most likely his) money.  Moving on.  I thought I would take the opportunity to share with you what I’ve learned on this controversial ingredient that’s been linked to just about every disease in the book. I was originally going to make this a general post back in April, but holy moly it’s just not that simple!

What exactly is high fructose corn syrup?
The Chemical Basics
After scouring the internet for a solid Bill Nye video on sugar, I came up empty-handed.  So you’re left in my semi-capable hands to try to spell this out.  
After I dusted off my Foods: Experimental Perspectives textbook, I located the chapter entitled Monosaccharides, Dissaccharides, and Sweeteners.  For those of you have haven’t had a science class in quite some time, do not, I repeat do not let any of those words intimidate you. Monosaccharide and disaccharide are just two words that also mean carbohydrate. Don’t let the prefixes throw you either. Monosaccharide means one sugar (or carb). Three of the most common monosaccharides are glucose, fructose (sugar found in fruit), and galactose (sugar found in milk).  Oh organic chemistry, how I miss you so.  Dissacharide means two sugars. Who’s on third? (That was a joke. Stop sweating). Sucrose, better known as table sugar, is a dissaccharide in which one glucose and one fructose are linked together.  You still with me?

Now let’s talk about sweetness. Table sugar (sucrose) is 100 on the relative sweetness scale. Fructose is much sweeter and comes in at 173.  Glucose is slightly less sweet than sucrose at 74.

The Making of HFCS:

Traditional corn syrup is simply made by introducing water to cornstarch. It’s made up of glucose and other larger compounds.  When commercial manufacturers make HFCS, they convert some of the glucose to fructose, thus making it sweeter.  This conversion takes place via enzymatic activity.  What is an enzyme?  An enzyme is simply a catalyst that brings about a reaction.  Manufacturers can convert upwards of 90% of the glucose to fructose. The more glucose that’s converted to fructose, the sweeter the solution will be.

At the end of the day, high fructose corn syrup is still simply sucrose (glucose + fructose) with a greater concentration of fructose.

The Advertisements
Allow me to point out what I believe are two glaring components of the commercial
  1. What are they drinking?!
  2. This ad, along with its sister commercials out there on HFCS, are brought to you by the Corn Refiners Association. This isn’t made apparent to the average viewer, as in those of us with moderate to poor eyesight.  This little brought to you by tag appears for about three seconds at the very end of the commercial in faint grey font.  So what’s the big deal? Well HFCS is made from corn.  Think they have an agenda?  You bet they do.

Below are two actual comments people made on the youtube video of the HFCS commercial I posted earlier:  

“High Fructose Corn syrup is a good substitute for sugar, kinda like motor oil is a good substitute for extra virgin olive oil. Pour some motor oil in your pan and eat that, but only in moderation.” – received 17 thumbs up (those who agree)

“This is a huge piece of propaganda, this stuff hurts you, it is horrible compared to natural sugar, this stuff is linked to colon cancer.”  – received  21 thumbs up

Consider yourself warned.  I love fact-checking people.  It’s almost an innate compulsion.  I’m not sure where it all stems from, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t become a defining characteristic of my personality; otherwise I am going to be single forever.  Mark my words. Regardless, this bold statement that HFCS is directly linked to colon cancer was like a towel whip to my face, screaming out to be investigated.  

What Professionals Are Saying:

Jennifer Nelson MS, RD, LD writes like a rock star on this disputed topic on the Mayo Clinic website. 

“Research studies have yielded mixed results about the possible adverse effects of consuming high-fructose corn syrup. Although [HFCS] is chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), concerns have been raised because of how [HFCS] is processed. Some believe that your body reacts differently to high-fructose corn syrup than it does to other types of sugar. But research about high-fructose corn syrup is evolving.”

The American Dietetic Association has said, “Once absorbed into the bloodstream, the two sweeteners [sugar and HFCS] are indistinguishable.” The FDA reaffirmed its safety in our food supply in 1996.  Lastly, the American Medical Association has stated HFCS is so similar to sucrose it appears unlikely that it contributes more to obesity and other conditions than sucrose.  
When organizations like the American Dietetic Association, Food and Drug Administration, and American Medical Association tell me something is safe, I tend to believe it. I’m not anhedonic.  
Come back Friday to get reacquainted with eggs! 

Stay tuned for Part II 
(How can there be more?)

Seven steps to reduce your cancer risk.  Retrieved from:
Nelson, J.k<. (2010, October 23). What are the health concerns about high-fructose corn syrup?. Retrieved from
American Dietetic Association. Use of nutritive and nonnutritve sweeteners. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2004. 104:225-275
American Medical Association. Report 3 of the Council on Science and Public Health. The health effects of high fructose corn syrup. July 23, 2009.
McWilliams, M. (2008). Foods: experimental perspectives . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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