High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a processed form of sugar made from corn. It’s in so many foods on the supermarket shelves that you might have to search to find one without it. It’s used in crackers, bread, cakes, canned goods, and soft drinks. It even shows up in places you wouldn’t believe - like processed cheeses, canned meat, and catsup. Even though it has been highly criticized by nutritional and medical sources, it continues to be the one biggest source of calories in the American diet. In the meantime, a growing fraction of the general population has heard the controversy surrounding the product, and many consumer groups are asking food companies to eliminate or greatly reduce its use.
And you don’t have to look very hard to find plenty of good reasons for why HFCS is being bad-mouthed – more on this later.
A September editorial in the N Y Times talked about the campaign led by the Refiners Association, a firm representing HFCS, to try to make corn syrup more acceptable to the U.S. population. The promoters of the product have petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to call HFCS, corn sugar. The new name is supposed to sound somehow more “natural.” (And what could be more American and more natural than corn, well, maybe only apple pie.) The spokeswoman for the campaign affirms that the ‘corn sugar’ tag will better communicate to consumers about the nutritional value of HSCS. Obviously, the Refiners Association also hopes that their new publicity campaign will help take the heat off the public’s demand to limit the use of HFCS.
Just what is HFCS, anyway?
While common table sugar comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beets, HFCS is made by extracting starch from corn kernels and then turning the glucose part of the starch into fructose. HFCS is a favorite of the food industry for practical reasons: it retains moisture better, giving food products a longer shelf-life and is also much cheaper than other sweeteners because corn growing receives heavy government subsidies.
What we do know is that since the 1980’s, HFCS has replaced regular sugar, honey, and similar sweeteners in practically all processed foods and especially in our beverages.
Why does HFCS have a bad rep?
A number of studies conducted over the past few decades indicate that HFCS use in foods is connected with both health and ecological concerns. Here are some of the most important arguments for limiting the use of corn syrup:
1. Just hallow calories.
In the past decade, just one ingredient, HFCS, that has no nutritional value (beyond calories), now accounts for about 10% of the total caloric intake of the U. S. population – mostly due to its use in soda pop and fruit drinks. Just think about that for a minute - to have anything so highly processed as a major factor in the diet has got to be a really bad idea! Remember we need proteins, fats, complex starches, fiber, vitamins, etc. for health. Substituting industrial sugars, of any kind, for real food needs is asking for big trouble.
2. A cause of weight gain
HFCS appears to be a major cause of significant weight gain, leading to obesity. Nutritional scientists believe that corn syrup and other high fructose sugars have the effect of temporarily stopping the communication (hormone interference) between the stomach and the brain. By the time your brain finds out you’re full, you’ve already overeaten. Therefore, you’re much more likely to get fat when your food contains HFCS.
3. Increased risk of diabetes
Besides making you fat, there seems to be a link between HFCS and the risk of developing Type-2 Diabetes. Medical doctors and anthropologists point out that humans are omnivores and have always eaten some fruit. That means we should be able to deal with the metabolic effects of fructose (the kind of sugar in fruits). The explosion in health problems related to HFCS appears to be due to the huge amount of fructose that’s being consumed and the fact that corn syrup has been stripped of the antioxidants and other protective substances that occur naturally in honey and fruit.
4. Increased risk of liver disease.
A recent study done at Duke University Medical School suggests that HFCS has a role in liver disease. Obviously, the elevated obesity level in the U.S. is a result of high caloric intake. But, there is another illness related to high consumption of HFCS, that may happen with or without excessive weight gain. It’s called fatty-liver disorder, and it’s something that’s usually related to excessive alcohol intake. Just like the sugars in alcohol, HFCS appears to be a cause of fatty liver. This condition causes scarring and hardening of liver tissue, which in turn can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
5. HFCS has a huge environmental impact.
For economic and political reasons, corn agribusiness receives huge subsidies from the U.S. government. So, corn is big business for farmers, who, because of subsidies, can sell it cheap, and corn's industrial product, corn syrup, is super-profitable for the food industry.
Journalist and agriculture industry critic Michael Pollen notes that the amount of corn that’s grown specifically for HFCS creates a huge environmental problem. Most corn is grown as a monoculture, meaning that land use is solely for corn and not rotated among several different crops. These practices maximize corn yield but deplete soil nutrients, weaken the topsoil, and, in turn, require the use of more pesticides and fertilizer. The situation has really become grim. Fertilizer runoff from the Corn Belt into the Mississippi River has created hundreds of square miles of “dead zone” (about the size of New Jersey) in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s called a dead zone because the oxygen level is so low that nothing can live there.
What should thinking people do?
What kind of sloppy thinking would allow us to continue drinking soda pop and other syrupy fruit drinks with HSFC? Instead of a refrigerator stocked with sodas, the kitchen should be a place where milk is available (especially to children) and tea or lemonade is made with moderate, not huge, quantities of regular sugar. Better yet, learn to drink and teach your children to drink plain water with meals and at other times of the day.
Beyond that, we’ve got to be on the watch for sugars in any form that become too important in our diet. Population and food expert, Barry Popkin (North Carolina at Chapel Hill) stresses that the U.S. obesity problem hasn’t occurred just because of HFCS. Rather, it's the fact that sugars from all sources have become are so prevalent in our food supply. He says that we can’t be healthy if sugars, in all their forms, continue to be so prevalent in our diet.
Once again, as is much repeated in nutritional circles (and, of course, in these posts), it’s always best to eat wholesome, home-cooked meals and to steer away from highly processed foods, as well as from fast food restaurants -- that sell monumental quantities of sodas and other sweet temptations. What's more, we should be vigilant to read food labels and never buy processed foods containing high fructose sweeteners, and HFCS in particular. There is reason to limit even the more common sugars from in our diet. And, if we feel that we can’t do without sweets, then we should eat them only in small amounts.
Here are a few suggestions that can keep your sweet-tooth happy, while your body stays healthy.
-- Replace some of the sugar in recipes with fruit puree from apples, prunes, or apricots. Stew the fruit in a little water until tender. Then blend it and use it to replace an equal volume of sugar in your recipe.
-- Or substitute apple juice or grape juice for half the liquid and cut the added sugar in half.
-- You can also exchange half the fat and half the sugar in a recipe with the same quantity of pureed apple. As an added bonus, it makes your bake goods moist and gives them a touch of fruity flavor.