The Corn Syrup Conundrum

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.

Author: Lisa Jarvis

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  1. Can the slightly higher percentage of fructose pose that much of a problem?

  2. The problem with HFCS is its ridiculously high glycemic index. I can’t remember it’s place on the scale, but I do know that it is much higher than any other sugar. This is bad because the higher the glycemic index, the more your blood sugar will be spiked, and these spikes in blood sugar have many negative effects. A very bad result is increased likelihood of getting diabetes. There are other negative effects that I can’t remember right now, but it DOES make a difference, and HFCS is indeed less healthy than other sources of non-synthetic sugars.

  3. Does anyone know where I can purchase pure corn syrup? I am use a baby formula from the 1960’s that calls for Karo corn syrup, however I know that since the 1970’s or so, Karo is no longer pure corn syrup, but now blended with HFCS, which is not what the recipe calls for. Thanks for anyone that can lead me to an actual site to purchase from!

  4. JW if you don’t want to use Karo, try looking for Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which is a British brand of cane syrup, or brown rice syrup, which you can probably find where organic food is sold.

    I strongly recommend the Cook’s Thesaurus website. It is a great reference for finding substitutes.

  5. I think fructose can pose some serious problem.

  6. Actually, HFCS is just a little above the halfway mark on the glycemic index at 62. This is understandable, considering the individual GI values of both fructose and glucose. Fructose is quite low with an average value around 20. Glucose, on the other hand, is very quickly digested with a value of 100. (100 + 20)/2 = 60, giving a resulting average for HFCS. But remember, the glycemic index was originally developed for people with diabetes. It can be misleading for those trying to apply it to a normal diet. For one thing, it doesn’t take into account how foods are cooked or processed (which can affect nutrient levels) and the fact that most people eat more than one type of carbohydrate-containing food at a time. They eat a variety of foods, which can all have a dramatic impact on the rate in which blood glucose rises. This is why people recommend lots of fiber and slower-digesting carbohydrates. They bind to water like a sponge and add bulk to aid in slowing down digestion and moderating the rise of blood glucose, resulting in a more sustained feeling of fullness and energy. A more useful tool may be the glycemic load, which takes a food’s glycemic index value, multiplies it by the actual amount of carbohydrates (portion size) you’re eating, and divides that by 100. The result is a bit more reliable when trying to figure out a food’s effect on blood glucose. Again, the key is moderation. That’s one thing the Corn Refiners Association definitely got right.