High Fructose Corn Syrup, also known as HFCS, Glucose/Fructose (in Canada), Glucose / Fructose syrup (in the EU where it can also be GFS), Fructose Syrup and High Fructose Maize Syrup is a category name for any of the type of Corn Syrups that has been processed (with Enzymes) to manipulate its levels of Glucose and/or Fructose to engineer a sweetness outcome, or desired sweetness level.
The basic process for making High Fructose Corn Syrup was discovered in 1957 by Richard O. Marshall and Earl R. Kooi working as researchers at the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station. Marshall and Kooi patented the process in the U.S. in 1960 but their process of manufacture for High Fructose Corn Syrup was not very commercially viable. A better process was invented by Dr. Yoshiyuki Takasaki working for the Japanese government at The Agency of Industrial Science and Technology from 1965 to1970. Dr. Takasaki’s process was patented in the U.S. in 1971.
The strange thing was that the marketplace did not sit up and take immediate notice. Not much happened on the High Fructose Corn Syrup front until 1977 when The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 was passed and signed into law. Along with loans and purchases programs, the act included a “market price objective” which was maintained through import duties and fees on imported sugar (see Smart Kitchen’s History of Sugar if you want to know more).
Unsurprisingly, the Market Price Objective was high and Sugar prices rose. High priced Sugar squeezed the margins of food manufacturers and beverage makers who naturally cast about for a cheaper alternative. In their search for a cheaper alternative, they discovered the work of Marshall, Kooi and Takasaki and began converting their products to HFCS. Because Corn production is also subsidized, High Fructose Corn Syrup is cheap. In fact, the U.S. is the only country in the world where corn sugar / syrup is cheaper than cane sugar / syrup.
Because High Fructose Corn Syrup is made from Corn, it differs minimally from Sugar or other Sucrose sweeteners (we discuss some of the differences in more detail in the Nutrition Section below) and can be used in a 1:1 ratio to replace Sugar. From the late 1970’s until about 1985, High Fructose Corn Syrup was rapidly introduced to many processed foods and soft drinks in the U.S. replacing Cane Sugar and Beet Sugar. By 1984, even Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola had made the switch to High Fructose Corn Syrup for their iconic brands (remember New Coke?).
Manufacturing High Fructose Corn Syrup is a bit of a discussion of chemistry that goes beyond the scope of Smart Kitchen. In simpler terms, two enzymes (Alpa-Amylase & Glucoamylase) are used in two steps to convert Corn Starch, from milled Corn, into long Glucose chains and then simple Glucose molecules. A third enzyme (Glucose Isomerase) is then employed to convert a definable percentage of the Glucose into Fructose.
Today, liquid High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is easier to blend than granular Sugar, more easily handled, transported and stored, cheaper (20% to 70% cheaper), and a natural preservative, has supplanted Sugar as a sweetening agent in sodas, candy, processed juices, processed breads, processed cereals, breakfast bars and other processed foods.
It also turns up in some unlikely places such as Soups, Vegetables even cold remedies. Part of the controversy about High Fructose Corn Syrup stems from the number of places where we unknowingly get a large dose of Sugar.
Industry claims, correctly, that High Fructose Corn Syrup differs minimally from other Sugars and sweeteners. The technical minor difference is that Sucrose is made naturally of Glucose and Fructose molecules bound together and in High Fructose Corn Syrup the Glucose and Fructose molecules are in solution in various, alterable ratios and created by the actions of enzymes. Both types of Sugar have about 4 calories in 0.035 ounces (1 gram).
Does the minor difference of having Glucose and Fructose molecules bound to one another make Sucrose (Granulated Sugar) significantly more healthy than the much maligned High Fructose Corn Syrup? Does the use of chemistry and enzymes, most of them naturally occurring in animals, make High Fructose Corn Syrup dangerous where Sucrose is not? Is it significant that Fructose is metabolized in the liver, while Glucose stimulates the pancreas to release insulin?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a problem but science has not yet been able to establish irrefutable proof. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) states that consumption of High-Fructose Corn Syrup is safe and that the calories of both types of sugar are about the same. If you don’t take the government’s word as the ultimate guarantee (as we don’t) The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims that a review of the scientific literature “Refutes a unique link between obesity and High Fructose Corn Syrup.” Of course much of the scientific literature is based on studies funded by the Corn Refiners’ Association or other Ag business groups.
The truth is that the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health has it the most “right” when it reported that “Only a few small, short-term experimental studies have compared the effects of HFCS to Sucrose, and most involved some form of industry support." As a result the council concluded: "At the present time, there is insufficient evidence to restrict the use of HFCS or other fructose-containing sweeteners in the food supply or to require the use of warning labels on products containing HFCS."
The reason for the difficulty determining the health effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup is that your body is designed to take in some Fructose but it is not designed to be bombarded with the stuff. Much of the problem may stem from how Fructose is processed in the body, as opposed to how the body handles Glucose. Fructose is processed by the liver, working hard, into Glycerol, which can raise levels of Triglycerides and favor “lipogenesis” (the creation of Fat).
Glucose, on the other hand, is absorbed by the lower intestine and sent directly into the blood stream as Sugar. Only the excess Glucose, not needed by your cells is ultimately stored as Fat.
So it seems that most of the health problems stem not from the Fructose itself, or even the High Fructose Corn Syrup, per se, but from the gigantic quantities of Fructose we are all exposed to in any processed foods and even many sources we don’t even know are sweetened with Fructose such as sauces (commercial pasta sauce, ketchups, etc.), pastas, breads, etc.
It is reasonably argued that the over consumption of Fructose is linked to: insulin resistance, obesity, fat around the middle, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, elevated LDL, lowered HDL, depletion of vitamins and minerals, heart disease, liver disease, liver scarring (cirrhosis), fatty liver, cancer, arthritis and even higher levels of Uric Acid that can lead to gout.
The anecdotal evidence includes the fact that as consumption of HFCS has increased since 1977 the obesity rate has skyrocketed. In fact, according the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Americans’ intake of HFCS increased more than 10,000% between 1970 and 1990 while the average weight of the Americans had increased by about 20 pounds over a similar period, 1975 to 2005, when the average American consumed, on average, more than 42 pounds of HFCS a year.
If we received our Fructose only from whole foods (vegetables and fruits) as humans did for most of history, we'd eat about .53 ounces (15 grams) of Fructose a day, not the 2.6 ounces (73 grams) per day that the typical American teenager gets from sweetened drinks. And even worse, in vegetables and fruits, the Fructose is a combo being ingested along with Fiber, Vitamins, Minerals, Enzymes, and beneficial Phytonutrients, all of which moderate most of Fructose’s negative metabolic effects. In processed foods, it is all Sugar with no beneficial nutritional components.
For example, Dr. Richard Johnson in his book The Fat Switch, comprehensively reviewed the concept via a 10 week study in which 16 volunteers at a normal diet sweetened with high levels of Fructose while another 16 volunteers ate the same diet sweetened instead with high levels of Glucose.
The Fructose group produced new fat cells around their hearts, livers and other digestive organs. They also showed signs of food-processing abnormalities linked to diabetes and heart disease. The Glucose group did not have these problems.
Similar macro findings were seen in a Global Health Study that reported that “countries electing to use HFCS in their food supply have a diabetes prevalence that is about 20% higher than in countries that do not use HFCS.”
The United States has, by far, the highest per-capita consumption rate of HFCS in the world.
In industry, HFCS which consists of 24% water, is usually described with a numeral attached to the acronym that specifies the Fructose content of the HFCS. For example, the most widely used variant of High Fructose Corn Syrup is “HFCS 55,” which is used in soft drinks. In the acronym the “55” notes that the variant of HFCS is 55% Fructose, 42% Glucose and 3% other Sugars. HFCS 42, used more for processed foods and baked goods, is 42% Fructose, 53% Glucose and 5% other Sugars.
HFCS-55 = 55% fructose, 42% glucose, and 3% other sugars
HFCS-42 = 42% fructose, 53% glucose, and 5% other sugars
Want to avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup? Avoid processed foods. Learn to handle and cook with whole foods at Smart Kitchen, “The Smartest Way to Learn to Cook™.” Moderation doesn’t hurt either.