High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) goes by many names, but it is always a sweetener that comes from corn starch. This product is broken down into glucose by enzymes, and then further processed to convert some of it into fructose. It is a sugar-substitute that was first marketed in the 1970s by the Clinton Corn Process Company and the Japanese Agency of Industrial Science and technology.
HFCS receives comparisons to granulated sugar in most food conversations, but there are some advantages that it has comparatively as a sweetener because it is easier to handle and cheaper to produce. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States says that it is a safe ingredient, with a 42% fructose composition used for breakfast cereals and other foods, and a 55% version made for soft drinks.
The primary debate regarding high fructose corn syrup involves whether or not there are greater health risks with this product compared to other sweeteners. As it continues to increase in popularity from a food manufacturing standpoint, it is essential to review the pros and cons of this product to determine if adding it to your diet is the best choice to make.
List of the Pros of High Fructose Corn Syrup
1. It provides versatility to food products when added as an ingredient.
High-fructose corn syrup is one of the most versatile ingredients that is currently on the market. The sweetener adds texture to foods, helps them to maintain their color, enhances the flavor of many items, and provides a helping hand in the quality sector. All of these additions come at a cost that is typically cheaper than any other caloric sweetener that is available to the food manufacturing industry, which means it offers several value add-ons without experiencing price destabilization as often as its competitive products.
2. HFCS reduces the manufacturing costs of sweetened drinks.
High-fructose corn syrup is an ingredient which food companies use in their formulation of soft drinks because it creates a particular freshness in the final beverage that regular sugars are unable to produce. It offers textures and flavors that are appealing to customers as well. When manufacturers use HFCS instead of a regular sweetener, then it can cost the production costs by up to 50%. That means a significant savings can be passed along to the consumer while the agency can maintain a greater profit margin simultaneously.
Current estimates suggest that the high-fructose corn syrup added to foods and beverages saves over $3.8 billion in total costs each year.
3. It allows foods to have superior browning levels during production.
High-fructose corn syrup is a reducing sugar, which means that it will give baked goods a superior level of browning when compared to using granulated sugars. That means your dinner rolls, breakfast cereals, bread products, cookies, and cakes all have more visual appeal because of the chemical composition that promotes this trait. Because you receive a better crust on your product, the flavor of the baked goods tends to remain more intense without the use of MSG or other enhancers to promote a tastier product with fewer additives too.
4. HFCS offers a lower freezing point.
High-fructose corn syrup has a lower freezing point than other sugar products, which means that a frozen beverage concentrate can be poured straight out of the freezer instead of waiting for it to thaw. That makes it easier for consumers to mix the product with water so that they can have something to drink in their home. This benefit can apply to most food products as well since HCFS offers more stability thanks to this feature. The quality of condiments and beverages remains high because this sweetener protects them from storage temperature fluctuations and low product acidity levels.
5. It offers a superior level of freshness to the final food product.
HFCS works to inhibit microbial spoilage because it reduces the amount of water activity in the food product when included as an ingredient. This advantage makes it possible for the foods to taste better and fresher for a longer time while it also extends the shelf life of the product. If you enjoy the firm texture of canned fruits and some vegetables, then you have high-fructose corn syrup to thank for that outcome. It even works to protect fruit from experiencing freezer burn when the food product is kept in cold storage.
6. This ingredient provides consumers with the exact foods they want.
Consumers often say that they want to avoid specific ingredients in their food, but the purchasing data from U.S. grocery stores suggests that they do not. Sweetener360 worked with Mintel and Nielsen to survey over 11,000 consumers in data commissioned by the Corn Refiners Association. The goal of this work was to determine how the presence of sweeteners affected the shopping behaviors for specific brands or products.
All consumer groups in the survey said that they avoid soda, but all of them would also purchase it. Even in the group of people who have high sugar awareness, 67% said that they avoided purchasing soda at the store, but 92% of them purchased. Over 50% of consumers in total say that they avoid sweeteners, but the actual purchase data suggest otherwise. HFCS is present because that’s what consumers want.
7. Not every study on the “evils” of HFCS uses best practices for data collection.
Princeton reported in 2010 published a study which reports that high-fructose corn syrup caused greater weight gain than table sugar when fed to rats, which then caused the researchers to conclude that HFCS was fueling the obesity epidemic.
NYU Nutritionist Marion Nestle critically assessed the Princeton study in this way. “I’m skeptical,” she said. “I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table sugar) on the body weight of rats. Once measurements on caloric intake were added into the data, the research actually showed that the observed differences between HFCS and sugar with statistically insignificant.”
8. Almost any food offers the potential for harm if not consumed responsibly.
The disadvantages of high-fructose corn syrup often involve the possibility of weight gain and insulin resistance, both of which can lead to serious disease development later in life. When any foods or beverages are consumed outside of moderation, then there is a risk that there could be adverse health effects developing with that repeated behavior. It is up to the consumer to read ingredient labels, understand what is in their food, and make choices accordingly based on what their budget can handle.
The average American was already consuming 39 pounds of fructose and 84 pounds of sucrose each year in the 1980s. By 1994, that figure increased to 66 pounds of sucrose and 83 pounds of fructose. The average person receives 25% of their caloric intake from sugars when they should really be including about 10% of their diet with sweetened ingredients at maximum.
List of the Cons of High Fructose Corn Syrup
1. It contributes an unnatural level of fructose to your regular diet.
The fructose levels in high-fructose corn syrup can be problematic for people when they are consumed at excessive levels. When you eat starchy carbohydrates, such as white rice, then the food is broken down into glucose, which is the basic form of the carbs. HFCS is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, so half of the product requires further processing by the body to be useful. The fructose from this ingredient must be converted into glycogen or fat by the liver before it can be used as fuel, which means there is a significant risk of experiencing weight gain when too much is consumed.
Although table sugar experience a similar problem with its composition, less of it is used because of the cost considerations in the food manufacturing industry today. The only way to avoid this disadvantage is to moderate your diet in such a way that you can limit the amount of high-fructose corn syrup you consume.
2. HFCS easily converts into fat.
When you consume too much high-fructose corn syrup, then the body’s natural reaction is to convert the excessive amount you’ve eaten into fat. Because fructose is metabolized by the liver, it will turn it into stored carbohydrates of which there is limited storage capacity. Smaller levels of fructose burn off just fine, but a large dose from baked goods or sugary carbonated beverages can overload the liver quickly to produce higher levels of fat.
When you have HFCS exposure at critical levels over an extended time, then this can lead to serious health concerns like fatty liver disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. It only takes three weeks of high-fructose corn syrup over-consumption to increase liver fat levels by up to almost 30%.
Celebrity chef Thomas Colicchio describes the use of high-fructose corn syrup in this way. “I don’t know too many parents that want to feed their kids soda, but high-fructose corn syrup is cheap. The price of soda in 20 years has gone down 40% while the price of whole foods, fruits, and vegetables has gone up 40%. Obesity goes up right along that curve.”
3. It is an ingredient which contains no essential nutrients.
Like with other added sugars in the foods and beverages you consume each day, high-fructose corn syrup does not contain any essential nutrients that contribute to your overall health. When you include this ingredient in your diet, then you have empty calories to process. Eating HFCS consistently can decrease your nutrient ratio since when you eat more of it, there is less room for the nutrient-dense foods that support your health.
If you are struggling with your weight or energy levels, then avoiding high-fructose corn syrup whenever you can may be one of the simplest and most effective ways to start lowering your overall risk of disease development.
4. HFCS has links to numerous risk factors for severe disease development.
There are several serious diseases which have direct links to the over consumption of fructose. It is one of the primary drivers for internal inflammation, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. When you receive insulin spikes from this ingredient, then you can increase your risk of tumor growth. Excessive intake of high-fructose corn syrup may also increase the number of advanced glycation end products in your body that could contribute to cell harm or premature aging. Even your risk of gout increases with HFCS because of the increase of uric acid production.
5. This ingredient is a key factor in the development of insulin resistance.
Before the 1970s, the risks associated with insulin resistance were typically directed towards individuals who consumed too many sugar-filled products. Because high-fructose corn syrup makes foods and beverages cheaper and therefore more accessible, it leads to higher consumption levels today. When you have too much of it, then your body can start to develop insulin resistance. This outcome decreases the flexibility of your cells to metabolize carbohydrates. That means blood sugar levels rise, and then so do your insulin levels. That’s why this ingredient is believed to play a role in metabolic syndrome, which also has links to specific cancers and heart disease.
6. It can increase your levels of visceral fat.
HFCS will cause fatty liver disease, but it will also increase the risk of visceral fat forming in your body as well. This fat is the type that surrounds your organs. Its presence is associated with an increased risk of experiencing a heart attack, developing heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, colorectal and breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes. There is even some evidence to suggest that it may be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease. You can manage this disadvantage by getting more exercise, managing your stress levels, and eating a diet that avoids sweetener-laden foods.
That is one of the reasons why Dean Karnazes, an ultramarathon runner, never touches this ingredient. “I eat nothing that’s processed or refined,” he said. “No high-fructose corn syrup, no sugar, no trans-fats. I eat a lot of fish and monounsaturated fats from nuts, olives, and olive oil. A lot of organic fresh fruits and vegetables, but no bread, no gluten, no wheat, or no rice.”
7. There is a risk of pesticide exposure with this ingredient.
Because high-fructose corn syrup is an agricultural product, there is a risk that the pesticides and herbicides used on the fields to produce a corn crop each year are within the sweetener. It is not unusual for farmers to use these items as a way to guarantee a harvest. Even organic farmers can use approved items in this category if they have a natural formulation. When you have this by-product in the ingredient, then you may have more health issues to worry about than if you consume sugar that came from beets or cane since those crops don’t need the artificial interventions.
8. The lower cost of HFCS in the United States is due to food subsidies.
The only reason why high-fructose corn syrup is such a cheap and popular product in the minds of many is because of the number of agricultural subsidies that are in place for it. Author Michael Pollan, who is also a professor of journalism at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, puts it this way.
“Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the President is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing. That guarantees that the cheapest calories in the grocery store will continue to be the unhealthiest ones.”
9. You can find HFCS in foods that normally wouldn’t contain sugar products.
There are several foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup which normally wouldn’t have any sweeteners added to them, so consumers do not always know what is in the foods they eat if they don’t check the ingredient list. You can find HFCS in sweetened yogurt, salad dressing, boxed dinners, granola bars, ketchup, nutrition bars, and coffee creamer.
Pollan describes American eating habits like this: “To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980s, virtually all of the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in these stores have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.”
Conclusion of the Pros and Cons of High-Fructose Corn Syrup
HFCS is an ingredient that can contribute to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and many other health problems. Since 2013, numerous organizations have been petitioning the FDA to determine what the safe limits on this ingredient are in the food products we consume. If you drink a 20-ounce bottle of soda, then the 16 teaspoons of sweeteners you drink come directly from this ingredient. That is twice the daily limit suggested by the American Heart Association.
Pollan says that the only way to truly avoid this ingredient is to start preparing meals at home whenever possible. “Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors, and to guarantee you’re eating real food rather than edible food-like substances with their unhealthy oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and surfeit of salt.”
There are some benefits to consider with high-fructose corn syrup, but most of them involve the cost of the product or the amount of profits that it can earn for a food manufacturer. Cheaper food is a tempting choice for households living paycheck-to-paycheck, which is happening more often today than ever before in history.
The Atlantic reported in 2012 on a study which showed that the countries who use HFCS the most also have higher levels of diabetes. A 20% increase in this disease was found to be entirely independent of obesity and total sugar consumption. That means the pros and cons of high-fructose corn syrup must be weighed carefully to determine what your health can manage. If you must use it, then do so with moderation.
Natalie Regoli is our editor-in-chief. The goal of ConnectUs is to publish compelling content that addresses some of the biggest issues the world faces. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.