Sweet and Lowdown: High Fructose Corn Syrup Digs In

The other day I found myself hungry and in a health food store. While this could have been an expensive predicament, as I could have gorged myself on an array of premium prepared foods, I knew this was just an in between meals/post work out sort of hunger that could easily be addressed and satiated by a minuscule, but carbohydrate-rich, snack. I spied a shelf full of Tiger’s Milk Bars, which used to be a health food store mainstay back in the 70s (actually, it used to be the only energy bar option out there) and so I figured something with this pedigree, while maybe not entirely healthy, would be at least healthful.

Within moments after purchasing, I thought to take a look at the ingredients of this Protein Rich Tiger’s Milk Bar. Guess what the first ingredient was? Sugar? No, that would be so 1970s. Try high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The very first and more prominent ingredient is HFCS! Where have all the flowers gone, indeed!

Since I first reported on the health concerns surrounding HFCS there has been a notable and vocal movement to combat the ubiquity of HFCS and an ongoing attempt to get it out of the majority of processed food products. In an effort to address concerns and skepticism about the inclusion of HFCS in all manner of sodas, salad dressings, breads, cereals, etc, the Corn Refiners Association produced a series of cynical ads trying to bolster the image of HFCS and gain some spin control (note: after publishing a criticism of the Corn Refiners Association’s ad campaign, I received a direct email from them asking me to reconsider my stance).

If anything, this wound up intensifying the backlash and gave marching orders to a growing mainstream opposition of outraged consumers who want HFCS out of their favorite products and sugar in its place. Major companies have seemingly been listening to the determined criticism and concern and just recently ConAgra decided to reformulate one of its biggest brands, replacing the high-fructose corn syrup in Hunt’s ketchup with old-fashioned sugar. According to the New York Times, Gatorade, several Kraft salad dressings, Wheat Thins, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback and the baked goods at Starbucks, to name a few, have all followed suit and are all now made with regular sugar. One of the results of this controversy is that bulk HFCS sales are significantly down (down 9 percent in 2009) and are expected to decline further this year.

So is this a victory for consumers? Having sugar, the evil we know, back in our lives and doing its own brand of damage on our pancreas, teeth, kidneys, etc? Well the argument still rages on over which is worse, HFCS or sugar. Some say the differences are negligible, while others (in the medical and scientific community and elsewhere) provide compelling evidence that HFCS is far worse and does a number on your metabolism and your general state of health. This debate will likely continue on for awhile, but those with an invested interest in the buying and selling of corn (namely the Corn Refiners Association) are not sitting on their hands and waiting for their product to lose all appeal.

According the New York Times, In a further attempt to improve its image, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow a name change to the simpler, less-chemical-y “corn syrup.” In January, the F.D.A. issued a letter to the Corn Refiners giving its thumbs-up to the name change. But after an objection from the Corn Refiners’ rival, the Sugar Association, F.D.A. officials sent another letter saying that they needed to give the matter further thought.

Also, in a strange reversal (since we are on the subject of strange reversals) Mexico, which has been a nation well known (and well regarded) for maintaining sugar in much of its soft drinks (namely Coca Cola), is now seeing the less expensive HFCS make a splash in its domestic market, with sugar being replaced, and sales of the processed ingredient expected to be up 50 percent this year alone.

Still HFCS is in just about everything processed and one of the most commonly consumed processed ingredients consumed in the United States. Should this be a fight between sugar and HFCS? Are there differences so insignificant that we are missing the point? Are overly processed food, with high levels of sodium, fat, and sweeteners truly the issue here? Are consumers powerful enough to change the market, for better or for worse?

92 comments

William C
William C8 months ago

Thanks.

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W. C
W. C8 months ago

Thank you.

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Antoinette Reyes
Antoinette R7 years ago

great post

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Jim S.
Jim S7 years ago

Hi Inez, what does aspartame have to do with this?

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Inez Deborah Altar

The less sweetening the better, and I long suspected aspartame might be dangerous and now thye have found out it is

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Jim S.
Jim S7 years ago

The intensity of most flavors depends on context - i.e. whether it's mixed with salts or fats, how well-dissolved or emulsified it is, etc. (Of course, individual nueral acclimation and genetics probably plays a role too.)

In fact, one thing I can't the food industry for lying about is that the government's effort to get them to cut back on salt will be a really tricky proposition, because it enhances the perception of so many other things, including sweetness! Cutting back on either sugar or salt can be done, but both at the same time and they'll have an American revolt on their hands!

That said, conventional widsom and food-formulator types is that fructose is the sweetest sugar, gram for gram, which is why the mere 20-25 grams of fructose sugar in an apple or other fruit can be so sweet. So, I would expect HFCS to be pretty sweet as well. Certainly, if you ever tasted the bottled corn syrup sold as a retail sweetener (which is pretty close to HFCS), you'll be zinged by how sweet it is.

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Stephen W.
Stephen W7 years ago

@Betsy - sugar and HFCS are *not* equally sweet (at least to me). Sugar definitely tastes sweeter to me so I can use less and get the same sweetness.

Do you have any links to the research showing no difference in metabolism? Last I heard, it was still a debated subject on if there was a difference and how much difference it made. I've read at least one study (no saved links and memory of source is gone) claiming exactly the opposite - that there is a different metabolism for HFCS vs sugar (since the sugars in sugar are bonded and must be broken down before absorption) though they did not have a conclusion on if it was significant.

For me personally, I definitely gain weight (or at least maintain it) more easily on HFCS. I tend to have very regular routine (including foods eaten and similar) and if I do nothing except change from HFCS soda to sugar soda (when both varieties of Pepsi products were available), I lose a small amount of weight.

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Betsy H.
Betsy H.7 years ago

Reformulating products to remove high fructose corn syrup misleads consumers into thinking that products sweetened with other sweeteners, such as sugar, are healthier. Yet, there is no scientific basis to suggest that baked goods, juice drinks, and other products made with sugar are ‘healthier.’ So why the switch? It’s about marketing, not metabolism. Perception has become reality in the minds of consumers, despite the fact that both table sugar and HFCS are equally sweet, contain 4 calories per gram, and research confirms there is no difference in how the body metabolizes high fructose corn syrup, sugar, or honey. Table sugar is also refined (processed) and offers no nutritional advantage.

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Grace Johnson
Grace Johnson7 years ago

about time, HFCS is poison but it doesn't kill u quickly it also seems that it is more troublesome for some than others

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Julia J.
Julia W7 years ago

There is a difference. Just look at the connection between time-frame when HFCS began saturating our food supply, and the time-frame when obesity and diabetes levels skyrocketed. I'll take the devil I know, thanks. We've been using sugar for centuries (in smaller quantities, yes), and we didn't have the massive health crisis we have now. It's at least worth a shot. The crisis is so bad, we have to try something.

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