Dissecting Sugar: A Wade Through the High Fructose Corn Syrup Controversy

November 8, 2009

I was still reeling from New York City’s swift ban of trans fat when the high fructose corn syrup debate ignited and tore through the shelves of one of my favorite local grocers, vaporizing all traces of high fructose corn syrup. For a kid who grew up in the 80’s, this is like wiping out an entire food group. It made me queasy. Just what poison is this high fructose corn syrup? Why are we only now trying to get rid of it after it’s been around for over 30 years?

If you’ve already settled this sugary mess for yourself and would rather enjoy your Halloween loot in peace, you probably want to meander to happier recesses of the internet . However, if you are curious and don’t mind giving up your Halloween loot, read on.

There are two camps in the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) controversy: one insisting that HFCS is harmful for human consumption and another arguing that HFCS is chemically no different than table sugar and therefore deserves equal treatment. The general consensus among experts is that both of these carefully worded statements are in fact, correct.

From a chemical standpoint, HFCS resembles table sugar and is metabolized similarly. To make HFCS, corn syrup is converted into fructose through an enzymatic process, and then recombined with pure corn syrup*. Essentially: HFCS = fructose + glucose. HFCS comes in a few different flavors, however: HFCS-42, HFCS-55 and HFCS-90. The trailing number denotes the percentage of fructose each solution contains. Arguments can be made here that these varieties differ from table sugar (sucrose) because sucrose contains glucose and fructose in a 50/50 ratio. But since most consumables are made with HFCS-42 (in foods and baked goods) or HFCS-55 (in beverages), the fructose-glucose ratio is close enough that most experts don't deem HFCS signicantly different from sugar.

In a recent lecture given at UCSF, Dr. Robert Lustig notes that the main charge against HFCS is not a chemical difference from table sugar, but an economic one. HFCS is cheaper to produce and it works marvelously as a flavor enhancer. As a result, HFCS has found its way into a majority of our processed foods. As a nation, we are eating more sugar than we ever have and one of the main culprits seems to be the cheap and ready availability of HFCS.

The graph below from the USDA shows the trends in the consumption of various sugars over the past 40 years. You can see that corn syrup had replaced cane sugar as the dominant sweetening agent by the mid 80's. As the use of corn syrup has surged, our total caloric intake of sugars has risen correspondingly.

This trend is alarming because over-consumption of refined sugar, be it table sugar or HFCS, is detrimental to health. There is mounting evidence that the fructose component of the refined sugars is down right dangerous (yes, fructose, the fruit sugar!). When fructose is isolated from the plant mass, you lose your satiety signal, and it leaves you vulnerable to overeating. Which is exactly what I experienced after having a desperation-cupcake yesterday. Have you experienced this before? Craving more food after having sweets? And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Read what the American Heart Association has to say about the effect of sugar intake (including fructose) on cardiovascular health. In any case, my point is that the arguments of each camp in the HFCS debate (HFCS is bad for you, and HFCS is equivalent to sugar) are not mutually exclusive.

To me, the HFCS controversy is emblematic of a larger problem in our relationship with food - a fragmented food chain. There's rarely a week that goes by without some news about contamination in our food supply (for example, this week's stories on BPA and e-coli - again!). This happens because many of us have relegated food preparation to the industrial food complex. When we do this, we become so removed from the origins of our food that it becomes more difficult to know what is healthy or safe. My strategy for staying above the fray? Stay away from processed foods, get in the kitchen and roll up your sleeves with some wholesome foods and good recipes.

What's your take on high fructose corn syrup? Has the HFCS controversy changed your eating or shopping habits? If so, how?

*Although sound in theory, it seems to me that the more processed a food is, the higher the likelihood for contamination. This Washington Post article from earlier this year reported findings of mercury in high fructose corn syrup.

Sugar cubes photo by: Vali...



john's picture

Really? This is the only difference? Complete your research... How are sugars, and HFCS sourced? HFCS is sourced from conventionally grown corn, produced with petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizer, chemical herbicides and pesticides and genetically modified seed varieties. All this, done in a government (read "taxpayer") subsidized, monoculture system. Whether it is good for us to eat is moot... it is horrible for the earth, and has hidden costs, financial, environmental and human health. Sorry. there is no good reason to consume HFCS, other than to artificially prop up conventional corn growers and chemical/seed companies... Only organically grown, natural sweeteners for me, thank you!

Yuna Wu's picture

You are right about the differences in their sourcing. As with every food we eat, it's an important consideration. The ethical choices we make about the foods we eat are complex, and involve many factors.

My article focused on one factor, which is the chemical composition of these sweeteners and the ways our bodies metabolize them. There are of course other factors.

Sarah's picture

Great post - we try to avoid HFCS as much as possible - we eat very little processed food and I do most of my cooking from scratch. We generally try to keep our sugar consumption down, and when we do indulge, it's almost always the real thing.

Barnaby Dorfman's picture

Excellent analysis! I hadn't thought of the lower price (not cost) being such a driver in adding more sugars to processed food. It really is amazing how much sugar you find in the ingredient lists of most packages in the supermarket, not just on cookies, but also the savory foods. One of the big takeaways I got out of Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food," came from the observation that traditional cultures (Eskimo, Asian Indian, Swiss Tyrolean, Fench) eat/ate a lot of the things we're not supposed to, including animal fats. Yet, these people had/have very little heart disease and almost no diabetes. Think of it, Eskimos subsisted on little more than blubber for much of the year...not exactly what the cardiologist orders up! The one thing these cultures didn't eat a lot of: sugars, be they complex carbs/starches or simple. Interestingly, there seems to be an inheritance of problems when we eat animals that eat a lot of sugar. The fat of corn fed beef is much higher in saturated fat than animals only fed grass.

Yuna Wu's picture

That's a great observation about fat, Barnaby. Sugar as a national health issue picked up a lot of traction when the low fat diet craze took off in the 80's. When food companies took out the fat in foods, they tasted like cardboard - not surprisingly. To remedy, they started pumping it up with sugar. And it's been a downward trajectory health-wise since.