High Fructose Corn Syrup: Food Villain?
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 do 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