While we’re on the subject of chemicals and food, I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed what seems to be a flood of ads touting the healthiness of high fructose corn syrup. They usually feature a wildly unbelievable scenario—in one a teenager offers his brother some cereal and they get into a debate about whether HFCS is safe or not—and are, unsurprisingly, sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association.
I’ve had friends ask what the difference is between HFCS and good ol’ sugar, aka sucrose (I wonder how many other readers out there serve as their friends’ primary source for all things science—and I mean ALL things science.), and thought perhaps some clarification was in order. In a sense, the difference largely comes down to ratios: sucrose is made up of a glucose loosely bound to a fructose molecule. The acidic environment of your belly causes that sucrose to break into glucose and fructose. In other words, you wind up with a 50:50 ratio of fructose:glucose. High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, is made by taking pure corn syrup (100% glucose), adding enzymes to convert that glucose to fructose, then creating blends of the two components. The stuff added to your soda is generally HFCS-55, which means its 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Some studies have linked soda consumption to obesity and diabetes, and suggest this could be due to the slightly higher percentage of fructose. The Corn Refiners Association obviously refutes those claims, citing a rise in obesity in countries like Australia where sucrose continues to be the predominant ingredient in foods and soft drinks.
This battle to win the public over to HFCS, with the ads highlighting that it’s “made from corn,” is vaguely reminiscent of an earlier battle in the artificial sweetener arena. A few years back, the makers of NutraSweet sued the Splenda folks over the tagline “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar.” I wrote an Insights about the chemists who explained the science behind the manufacturing process–there were some choice moments during the trial, like when they forced a scientist to go through every step of the synthesis and say whether the chemicals used were sweet. As it turns out, phosgene, not so sweet. These sweetener folks sure like to play hard ball to get you to consume more of their product. Or at least less of their competitor’s product.
So there you have it. Perhaps we should all just drink more water. As long as it comes out of bottles that don’t contain bisphenol A.