High Fructose Corn Syrup: Food Villain?

September 11, 2008 at 4:13 pm 2 comments

In the past few years, High Fructose Corn Syrup has hogged the spotlight as an insidious force in the food world. Natural foodies have embraced this latest bogeyman, blaming it for allergies, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It has become shorthand for over-processing, consumer exploitation, contentious farm subsidies and questionable parenting. The tides have turned so much against HFCS that the Corn Refiners Association has launched a campaign to point out that while is it fast becoming a “food villain,” few people actually know why they have come to see it as a negative ingredient in food:

There are some interesting parallels with organic food, which has simultaneously become positively coded in society. Different people value organics for different reasons: safety, taste, naturalness, humaneness… the list goes on, but regardless of specifics, the result is that many people just think it’s “better.” HFCS is organics’ evil twin. People have come to eye HFCS with suspicion for a multitude of reasons, believing that it is unhealthy, unnatural, everywhere, tastes inferior and the root of the obesity problem. It’s a food villain.

There is a reason for the raging debate. I looked for a simple answer, but there isn’t one. People are very opinionated, arguments from both sides are at times more emotional than logical, there is an abundance of fuzzy facts and inconclusive science, and there’s little distinction between cause and correlation. I thought that it would be helpful to share some of the information and questions I had, so that people who haven’t made up their minds can base their own opinions on fact rather than hype.

1. Is HFCS natural or synthetic?

Fact: HFCS is made from corn

Fuzzy fact: HFCS is made from corn, therefore it is “natural.”
This is a politically charged topic. While HFCS is derived from corn, it then undergoes an enzymatic process to convert some of the glucose to fructose. HFCS is ultimately a combination of fructose and glucose. The FDA has changed its mind twice about whether it should be considered “natural.”

Question: Does it matter whether it is natural or not? True, many people use the simple equation of natural=good and unnatural=bad. But semantics aside, isn’t the more important question about its specific impact on health?

2. Is HFCS bad for my body? How?

Fact: Obesity is on the rise

Fuzzy fact: HFCS is to blame.
This is where the biggest question mark lies. Studies have emerged from both camps. Several have linked HFCS to diabetes and obesity. Others maintain that there is little difference between HFCS and sucrose. It’s not a black and white picture, and many of the studies were small or lacked controls vis-a-vis non-HFCS alternatives.
One thing is clear: eating lots of high calorie food can make you fat. The Mayo Clinic advises people to avoid or limit HFCS products, but clarify that it’s because they tend to be high calorie foods, and that food sweetened with cane sugar or other non-HFCS options also carry risks for weight-gain.

Question: These are serious and legitimate concerns that warrant more rigorous research. Given the widespread ramifications of the results, shouldn’t the FDA step up as a neutral body and coordinate this effort?

3. HFCS is in everything. Is this a giant cover-up?

Fact: Yes, it’s everywhere.
HFCS is ubiquitous because it is a highly effective sweetener, it’s stable, and it’s cheap. Part of the reason it remains cheap is due to the corn subsidies in the US.

Fuzzy fact: The fact that it is everywhere makes it evil.
High consumption is alarming- but in that high consumption of any high calorie sweetener raises obesity concerns. An oft-quoted statistic cites that the average American consumes upwards of 50 pounds of HFCS per year. The answer may not just be less HFCS, it may mean less sugary foods period.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pro-HFCS. I’m not part of a corporate conspiracy to fatten up consumers. What I┬ádo advocate is for more rigorous scientific research, and for people to also take some time to read about the food they eat so that they can make educated decisions about their diets. And if conclusive evidence comes in about negative effects, corporations will certainly have to take the responsibility for finding healthier alternatives.

On a personal note, I try to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food in general. At the end of the day, if fear of HFCS sparks a re-examination of diets across the country, it may be a net positive regardless of whether or not HFCS is Voldemort in disguise. –Kat

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Daryl  |  September 12, 2008 at 11:36 am

    One of the books I read as a kid was Roger Enrico’s “The Other Guy Blinked”, the Pepsico CEO’s account of the Cola wars of the 80s. If I recall correctly – and I may not, having read way too many books about colas – he gushed over being able to replace sucrose with HFCS in the book. Very interesting to see how it’s acquired a negative frame over the years.

    My main complaint about HFCS is the taste is noticeably worse than regular sugar. Just try Coke or Pepsi from outside the US (where they still use cane sugar or regular sugar) vs the US versions.

    Reply
  • 2. Allabouthealth  |  September 20, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Actually, there is quite a bit of scientific evidence demonstrating the chemically processed fructose and hfcs are damaging to the body. It’s not that the research isn’t out there, it’s that politically the topic is hot and the hfcs industry has BIG bucks to throw at keeping things quiet. However, anybody that knows how to search around can find the studies that demonstrate what happens in the body when hfcs is consumed. Once you find that you can make your own decision about whether it is an okay product or not. I for one am running rapidly in the other direction and encouraging my clients to do the same. To do otherwise is like saying “sure, crack is okay in moderation”…. You say you’re not a supporter or a plant of ‘the industry’ but I have to wonder.

    Reply

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