It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere! Pick up any box or bottle at the supermarket, and chances are, you’ll be looking at a product that contains high-fructose corn syrup. It’s been stealthily sneaking into our food since the 1970s, replacing real sugar as the sweetener of choice. As rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease in America have skyrocketed, many consumers and medical professionals have begun to wonder if the HFCS we’re consuming every day is playing a part in our national health crisis. Some dieticians and health practitioners decry the sweet syrup as poison, although corn growers claim that it’s just as safe as regular sugar. Since we consume it in everything from soda to sandwiches, it’s worth knowing the truth about this abundant sweetener.
Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
Our bodies mainly utilize three types of naturally occurring sugar: glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Glucose is our body’s main source of energy, and it’s found in starchy and fiber-filled foods. Fructose is a chemically simpler sugar that’s found in fruit, some nuts, and some root vegetables. The combination of glucose and fructose results in sucrose, or simple table sugar, which is made by plants, including sugar cane. Corn doesn’t naturally contain fructose, but it does contain glucose, and in 1957, scientists discovered an enzyme that would allow them to chemically transform the glucose into fructose. Combining this processed syrup back with glucose syrup results in high fructose corn syrup, a product usually made with 55 percent fructose syrup and 45 percent glucose syrup. It’s almost sugar, but not quite.
In the 1970s, food manufacturers became very skilled at making HFCS, and due to widespread availability of corn (our government subsidizes its production) and the high tariffs on imported sugar, HFCS became cheaper and more readily available than real sugar. Since it’s so inexpensive, it comprises about half of the sweeteners consumed today in the United States. Originally, HFCS was thought to be not only a cheaper alternative to white sugar, but also safer for diabetics, since fructose doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike. It’s also more water-soluble than real sugar, and mixes well into many products, especially beverages.
Besides being much less expensive than real sugar, food companies love to use HFCS because it’s also a preservative, keeping perishable foods fresher longer. It’s in crackers, pasta, canned vegetables, condiments, and just about any other kind of processed product, even those that we don’t normally think of as sweet. It helps bread stays fluffy, cookies stay crisp, and the food producers reap the benefits of cheaper, more efficient manufacturing.
Since food and beverage companies rely on HFCS to sweeten so many products, Americans today consume massive quantities of it, much unknowingly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans ingest about fifty-two pounds of HFCS per year. Some claim that it appears in up to 80 percent of the foods we eat. Many public health officials have pointed out that the increased use of HFCS in processed foods virtually mirrors the rise in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease of the past thirty-five years. While there’s no definitive proof that HFCS is directly causing these health problems, there’s some evidence that it’s not exactly helping, either.
Is Fructose Making Us Fat?
Fructose is not our body’s preferred energy source, so it processes fructose differently than it processes glucose or sucrose. While glucose can be utilized by any cell in the body, fructose is broken down by the liver, which turns much of the leftovers directly into triglycerides, a fat that’s harmful to your heart. Also, since fructose is so chemically simple, it gets processed into fat much quicker than does regular sugar.
Fructose also affects our hormones. Exposure to fructose increases insulin resistance, requiring the body to produce more insulin to manage our blood sugar, which can ultimately lead to Type II diabetes. Fructose also fails to trigger the release of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and food intake. When this hormone isn’t released, the body doesn’t recognize when it’s full, which can lead to overeating. Plus, the cheapness of HFCS has made it easier for companies to increase portion sizes, leading to king-size candy bars and giant buckets o’ soda.
High-fructose corn syrup doesn’t just affect the human body; it also has serious effects on our environment. Corn in the United States is grown as a monoculture crop, not rotated with other crops, and that constant production depletes the soil of nutrients, requiring more pesticides and fertilizer, which pollute the groundwater.
Backlash to the Backlash
The Corn Refiners Association is trying mightily to convince consumers that HFCS is a natural product that’s safe in moderation. They’ve recently aired many commercials in which concerned moms learn that HFCS is “just as safe as sugar,” since it is made from corn, and regular refined sugar is not exactly a health food. Real sugar can lead to plenty of problems on its own, including obesity, diabetes, and dental decay. Despite being the food boogeyman du jour, the FDA and AMA both consider HFCS to be safe, and most health experts do agree that, like real sugar, HFCS is fine when consumed in moderation.
Since HFCS is in so many products, it’s hard to monitor or moderate how much we’re consuming, but it’s becoming a little easier to avoid it entirely. Although the jury is still out on the real health risks, the court of public opinion has made it clear that many consumers would rather have real sugar rather than chemical sweeteners. Pepsi has introduced a line of sodas sweetened with real sugar, and other companies are following suit, offering products free of HFCS. There are many passionate people on both sides of the debate, those claiming that HFCS isn’t really that bad, and those who think it’s the scourge that will kill us all. The only thing certain is that any refined sugar (or any type of calorie, for that matter), consumed in massive quantities, will invariably lead to health problems. High-fructose corn syrup may not be very good for you, but sugar itself isn’t much better. The only truly safe strategy is to avoid or limit sweeteners—natural or not.