February 09, 2011

Shades of Gray, Episode 1: High-fructose Corn Syrup

Okay, folks.  I have done my best to be a neutral informer, with a few opinions thrown in for interest.  Comments should be open, no login needed.  Talk to me!

A recent blog post by a friend addressed the pickle of the abundance of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in food and how expensive a trip to the grocery store can be if you want to avoid it.  Please read the post and my comment to gain some background for this post.

I took her challenge to look in my pantry to see where I found HFCS and I actually found much less than I expected.  Where I did find it was in products that we don't need, like packaged cookies and the few soft drinks we have.  This includes my ginger ale, which I don't intend to give up.  I know you can use tonic water as a mixer, but I prefer my Canada Dry.  Gin, vodka, rum, whiskey...you really can't go wrong.

From my position atop the fence of science I wanted to give some background on the topic and share my thoughts on the subject.  I don't propose to know anything about government subsidies or tariffs or anything like that.  I do know about science and food, so that is what I will focus on.

The basic health concern is that HFCS makes us fat, as in fatter than eating regular sugar would.  The reasoning is that there is more fructose - which does not trigger an insulin response and feelings of satiety - than glucose which does.  This is not exactly comparing apples to apples, but I'll do my best.

First of all, what is sucrose?
Sucrose, or table sugar, is a disaccharide with one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule.  For future reference, that's 50% glucose and 50% fructose.  It is made by crystallizing the juice squeezed from sugar cane or sugar beets (1).

What is high fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is made by treating corn starch with several enzymes.  First of all, you need to know that corn starch is made up of long, branched chains of glucose molecules.  To make HFCS, it is treated with:
  1. alpha-amylase - breaks the long, branched chains of glucose down into shorter, unbranched chains of glucose molecules
  2. glucoamylase - breaks the shorter chains of glucose into individual glucose molecules
  3. xylose isomerase - converts some of the glucose into fructose
Stopping after Step 2 produces corn syrup, as in Karo Syrup, with no fructose (check the label, I have some store brand corn syrup that does contain HFCS).  After all three steps, the final product is about 42% fructose and 50-52% glucose with small amounts of some other sugars.    Then, in a separate process, some of the 42% fructose solution is enriched to about 90% fructose and 10% glucose.  The 90% fructose solution is blended back into the 42% solution to create a solution of 55% fructose and 42% glucose.  So, there are three products:
  1. HFCS 42 - used in foods and baked goods
  2. HFCS 55 - mostly used in soft drinks
  3. HFCS 90 - used in some (unspecified) specialty applications, but mostly used for making HFCS 55
High fructose corn syrup was first created in 1957, but it could not be produced on a large scale until the late 1960's.  Then, from 1975 to 1985, it was rapidly introduced into the food processing industry, especially soft drinks (1).

Why is HFCS so widely used?
There are several reasons, but a major reason is the fact that it is cheaper than sucrose.  Corn subsidies, tariffs and trade quotas artificially raise the price of refined sugar in the United States and a few other places.  Additionally, it is easier to transport and blend into products because it is a liquid (1).

Functionality in foods
I went looking for reasons why HFCS as an ingredient may be preferable to sugar and found this (2).  My opinion is that, except for perhaps the extension of shelf stability (meaning anti-staling in this case), pourability of frozen concentrates and firmness retention in frozen fruits, sugar serves most of the same purposes, though it will take more labor and energy to incorporate it into the product because it will have to be dissolved with heat and mixing.  This means a higher production cost which means a higher price on the grocery store shelf.

So, who is to blame?
I would say greed and primal instincts.  We can hardly be surprised that the Corn Refiners Association is defending their product.  They do need to sell it, after all.  However, instead of telling us that HFCS is good for us, I would prefer to see them create some data that at least shows that it's not worse for us than sucrose.  Many studies have been done, but, as with most scientific research, for every study that says one thing there is a bigger and better study that says something completely different.

Food manufacturers also need to sell their products, and they sell us want we want.  We choose the products in taste tests that determine the formulations used in food products, and we likely choose the ones with with the sweetest taste (i.e. higher levels of HFCS).  All living things have the need for sustenance, and we all like sweet things and fat.  This is a survival instinct and has been true since the dawn of time.  I bet if there was a pecan pie available the cave kids would have been trying to sneak a slice before they finished their hunk of woolly mammoth.

And now...DATA!
You knew it was coming.

In 2002, consumers around the world spent almost 3 times as much money on soft drinks as we did on fruit, $193 billion (USD) on soft drinks and $69 billion on fruit (3).  That was more than 327 billion liters!  I couldn't find anything more recent on spending, but I did find this table showing that we Southerners consistently spend the most on soft drinks (4).  Maybe this has something to do with that old joke about Mountain Dew in the baby bottle.  It is cheaper than formula.

I did some research at the local grocery store to attempt to put the spending in perspective.  I chose the 2 liter soft drink as the vessel for comparison.  The store brand 2 liter soft drink is $1.29 and name brands are $1.59 to $1.79, we'll say $1.50 for an average.  According to the label, a 2 liter bottle contains eight eight ounce servings, that's about $0.19 per serving.  For the same $1.50 you could buy:
  • 1.5 apples ($1 per serving)
  • 1.5 pears ($1 per serving)
  • 1.5 oranges ($1 per serving)
  • 1/2 lb. strawberries ($0.75 per serving)
  • 1.5 grapefruits ($0.50 per serving)
  • 1/3 lb. grapes ($0.50 per serving)
  • 1/2 a cantaloupe ($0.37 per serving)
  • 8 medium bananas ($0.19 per serving)
The only fruit that is comparable in cost per serving is the banana.  So, excluding the banana, you can get 2 to 5 servings (that's 8 ounces!) of soda for the same price as one serving of fruit.  By my wonky calculations, that changes the implications of the previous spending statistic quite a bit.  As in we actually consumed a lot more than three times the amount of soda compared to fruit.

In Conclusion
By the numbers, most of the HFCS we encounter outside of soft drinks actually has less fructose than regular white sugar (42% fructose compared to 50% in table sugar).  What is in soft drinks is only a little more fructose than glucose (55% fructose).

I believe it's not the amount of HFCS we eat, it's the amount of sugar in any form that we eat that is the problem (5).  If you've ever read books that take place in the late 19th and early 20th century (such as my favorite - The Little House on the Prairie series), you know that white sugar and candy were very special treats.  It was brought out for company and occasionally found in a Christmas stocking.  I'm not saying that we need to be that spartan with the sugar.  I have as much of a sweet tooth as anyone else and I am happy to have a drawer full of chocolate and candy I can dig into at any time.  I just have to remember that is was my choice to buy it in the first place, and my choice to eat it.

As a final point, the actual amount of soda consumed at one sitting by the average consumer is far more than eight ounces. I've seen people drink 5 glasses at one meal, each one probably 12 to 16 ounces. I've never seen anyone eat 10 apples at once.

  1. The Ultimate Resource - wikipedia.org
  2. Corn Refiners Association - sweetsurprise.com
  3. Market Research - researchwikis.com/Soft_Drink_Market
  4. US Regional soft drink consumption - beveragemarketing.com
  5. Health - mayoclinic.com


  1. Wow, that was an amazing amount of work! I'm so impressed!

  2. " I just have to remember that is was my choice to buy it in the first place, and my choice to eat it."

    I don't think I could have found it summed up any better.

  3. Holy crap. This is an amazing, real person with science knowledge perspective on HFCS. Absolutely RAD read! Thank you, Christie! I love the approach, the take, the conversation via blogs. You are a rad resource, and I hope you have other episodes you do with other topics! :D

    And thank you for making me feel happy that my rant and fear spawned such research on your end. That is killer that you thought it out that much! And make me think it out all the more!

    Yes, I have realized the last couple weeks, as I have decreased my caffeine intake exponentially, I have sharply increased my sugar intake. And regular old table sugar or HFCS, it's all bad news except in small to moderate consumption.