The Truth Behind High Fructose Corn Syrup

By:    Published: December 13, 2012

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Does the term “high fructose corn syrup” sound familiar to you? Chances are you’ve heard some of the hype surrounding this ubiquitous food ingredient. In fact, you may have seen the commercials about high fructose corn syrup on TV: one person tells another person that high fructose corn syrup is bad, which is rebutted with the claim that the stuff is just like regular sugar.

Ads such as these seem to mirror Americans’ own knowledge of this sweetener – high fructose corn syrup may sound bad to many of us, but we don’t really know why. Of course, the Corn Refiners Association, through the commercials mentioned above, tells us that there are no reasons to fear the stuff; that high fructose corn syrup is no different than regular sugar. But research has shown that high fructose corn syrup may cause some very unwanted side effects. So what’s fact and what’s fiction when it comes to high fructose corn syrup?

What Is High Fructose Corn Syrup?

High fructose corn syrup is an ingredient that’s used to sweeten many drinks and foods. As the name implies, high fructose corn syrup is part of the corn syrup family. However, high fructose corn syrup is completely different from regular corn syrup. Although both start out with the same ingredients – cornstarch and enzymes – high fructose corn syrup is made through a more complex process in which glucose must be turned into fructose via another enzyme. Once high fructose corn syrup is made, it’s added to many processed foods:

  • Soft drinks
  • Juices
  • Cereal
  • Ketchup
  • Bread
  • Cakes, cookies and ice cream
  • Salad dressing
  • Crackers
  • Yogurt
  • Applesauce
  • Sweetened pickles
  • Yogurt
  • Processed meat

Being that high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener, it’s not surprising that it’s found in cakes, ice cream and other desserts. But what is surprising is that it can be found in bread, salad dressing and even pickles. The truth is high fructose corn syrup is in just about everything you eat. It’s even an ingredient in cough syrup. Why is it used in so many products? Well, high fructose corn syrup provides a softer, chewier texture to baked goods and produces an even browning on breads, cakes and cookies. The sugars act as a preservative and provide stability to meats, yogurt and other foods that have a short shelf life.

The Good News

So should you be worried about this very common ingredient? The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which represents the corn refining industry says – no, you shouldn’t be. Here’s why:

  • High fructose corn syrup is technically natural – It’s made from corn, a natural food, and contains no artificial ingredients, so it technically meets the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) standards for the term “natural.” However, naysayers of high fructose corn syrup say that since it’s manmade, it’s not really natural.
  • It’s the same as regular sugar – The CRA says that chemically and nutritionally, high fructose corn syrup is no different from table sugar. It even has the same amount of calories.

So if high fructose corn syrup is natural and no different from table sugar, why is there so much debate?

The Bad News

Some studies have linked high fructose corn syrup to all kinds of health problems such as obesity, diabetes and ADHD. Let’s look at each of these claims individually:

Obesity – Researchers at Princeton University conducted a study on lab rats who consumed both sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. The rats that consumed the high fructose corn syrup gained much more weight than the rats that consumed sucrose. This led the researchers to believe that high fructose corn syrup has played a role in the obesity epidemic in America. However, experts have claimed that this study was flawed for a number of reasons, including the fact that the researchers failed to report on the rats’ change in weight or comparisons to control groups.

So the jury is still out as to whether high fructose corn syrup itself causes obesity or weight gain. However, it has been shown that high fructose corn syrup disrupts the feeling of fullness, and if you don’t feel full, you’re likely to eat more, which does indeed lead to weight gain and even obesity.

Diabetes – A study published in health journal Global Public Health showed that countries that consumed higher amounts of high fructose corn syrup had higher rates of diabetes, regardless of obesity rate or table sugar intake. High fructose corn syrup can also cause problems for those who already have diabetes by increasing insulin resistance.

ADHD – Although the link between ADHD and high fructose corn syrup hasn’t been studied in-depth, many parents have claimed that high fructose corn syrup has made their children more hyperactive.

Studies have also found that some high fructose corn syrups may contain mercury, which negatively affects the nervous system (see: The Health Effects Of Mercury Poisoning). If the sweetener was produced with caustic soda that was made in manufacturing plants that use mercury, then the syrup, and the food it’s been added to, may contain mercury.

The Bottom Line

The problem with high fructose corn syrup is that it’s in just about everything that we eat and drink. And by consuming so much of it, we become more at risk for whatever health problems that high fructose corn syrup may cause. Although more research is needed in that department, the results so far don’t seem too promising.

High fructose corn syrup may not be as bad as what some of the naysayers would like you to believe, but it’s also not as harmless as what the Corn Refiners Association would like you to believe, either. Keep in mind that, at the end of the day, high fructose corn syrup is still a sweetener and no sugar, artificial or natural, is good for you in excess. Moderation is always the key when it comes to sweets, and although high fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous, you can still attempt to avoid it by eating fresher foods, reading ingredient labels and choosing foods made with natural ingredients.

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