If I asked you if you liked High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), you’d probably say “No” and if I asked “why?”, the answer would most probably be “because it’s bad for you” and if I continued asking, “why is it bad for you?”, I would most likely not get an answer. Is it because somebody told you? Because you heard/read something about it somewhere? Hmmm? Spoiler alert: I don’t like HFCS either but I know why & so will you…read.
What is HFCS?
HFCS is a sweetener derived from corn that is composed of 45% glucose & 55% fructose. In comparison, sugar is composed of 50% glucose & 50% fructose. Both HFCS and sugar are carbohydrates with 4 kcal/g. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that they are almost identical in composition. So why is HFCS so much worse than sugar, or is it?
Side note: the name HFCS is very confusing and often used interchangeably with corn syrup and/or fructose. Corn Syrup(100% glucose) and pure fructose (100% fructose) are NOT the same as HFCS!
Until the mid 60’s refined sugar (sucrose) was the primary sweetener around the world but in the mid 80’s HFCS was introduced as the healthful alternative to the evilness of sugar…today it’s the reverse. It’s a liquid syrup that can be pumped from delivery vehicles to storage and mixing tanks, requiring only little dilution. Derived from corn, which is dependable, renewable, and abundantly grown right here in the USA = cheap!! Sucrose is much more susceptible to fluctuating prices in the market. So it’s no surprise that HFCS became quickly the new preferred sweetener in the US (the rest of the world still uses predominantly sucrose). Since HFCS is now found in many food items, it is conveniently used as a scapegoat for the growing obesity epidemic, but is it true? Not really. Statistics show that even though the type of sweetener has changed, the total amount has not. The increase in obesity and BMI has to be put into context with many other changes such as decrease in physical activity, increase in overall daily caloric intake, increase in sedentary jobs and entertainment, changes in transportation/infrastructure, to name a few. And maybe the fact that Americans consume 100 lbs sugar per person per year = 22 tsp/day could be a reason why obesity rates are on the rise?
But isnt’ it processed differently by the body?
I was unable to find any research showing that HFCS is metabolized differently than sugar. There is however a difference in how the body processes the individual components: glucose and fructose. Fructose is metabolized by the liver and overconsumption of fructose leads to excess fat in the liver, which has negative health consequences. More on this topic is beyond the scope of this article so I’ll stop right here.
So what’s the problem with HFCS?
Most corn is grown as monoculture, which means that the land is exclusively used for corn, not rotated among crops as is typical and as needed to keep the soil healthy. This causes the soil to be depleted of nutrients, top soil reduction and erosion. Quality of the soil becomes lower and lower, which causes farmers to use more pathogens and pesticides to continue growth for as long as possible. And because corn is heavily subsidized it is more profitable to spend more on pesticides and grow corn than to rotate crops to keep the soil healthy.
Conclusion: Consuming HFCS is not any worse than any other sugar. The problem isn’t overconsumption of HFCS but overconsumption of all types of added sugars. What’s undeniable is the devastating environmental implication corn growth has and that’s my reason for disliking HFCS. What’s yours?
White, J. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: what it is and what it ain’t. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 88(suppl): 1716S-21S
Rizkalla, S. (2010). Health implications of fructose consumption: A review of recent data. Nutrition & Metabolism, 7(82)
Fulgoni, V. (2008). High-fructose corn syrup: everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 88(supple):1715S