High fructose corn syrup: it's the added sweetener that can be found in everything from soup to juice to muffins to peanut butter. But, for something so sweet, it sure does stir up a lot of sour feelings. You'd be hard pressed to find a food product out there that causes as much controversy as high fructose corn syrup; but why?
Before we can understand the controversy surrounding high fructose corn syrup, we have to understand what it is. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a processed sweetener. In a lot of ways it's just like sugar. Its chemical make up is the same as sugar and it is used as an additive to make foods taste sweeter, just like sugar. But unlike sugar, high fructose corn syrup is incredibly cheap to produce and easy to store. It is extremely soluble and mixes well in many foods. HFCS is great for food manufacturers. It retains moisture, resists drying out, prevents microbiological growth and blends easily with other sweeteners, acids and flavorings. High fructose corn syrup is a manufacturer's dream: a product that is cheap to produce and easy to use.
So if high fructose corn syrup has a similar chemical composition as sugar and is a more versatile sweetener, why is it reviled by so many? Why is there so much controversy surrounding high fructose corn syrup?
Part of the controversy may be a result of bad timing on the part of high fructose corn syrup. The rise of obesity in the U.S. really began to gain steam in the 1980s, the same time the use of high fructose corn syrup started take over in our processed foods. High-fructose corn syrup came on the market as much as 20 percent cheaper than sugar and it was easier to transport. As a result, the sweetener soon turned up in all kinds of products, including many foods we didn't normally consider sweet like bread and pasta; it became ubiquitous.
Cheaper production costs also led to increased product sizes. Companies quickly realized that by using HFCS they could produce a larger amount of product for the same cost (or less) than before. To capitalize on that opportunity, companies started offering consumers larger sizes of products for a only slightly higher price tag. So for example, now that soda was sweetened with high fructose corn syrup we as consumers were getting 50% more soda for only 16% more money. Over time, the sizes kept getting bigger and consumers kept paying more (but not a lot more). And because we as a society have been trained not to be wasteful, we tend to eat (or drink) what we buy, even if we don't really want that much food/drink.
Another controversial issue surrounding HFCS is its environmental impact. According to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, high fructose corn syrup "may be cheap in the supermarket, but in the environment it could not be more expensive." Mr. Pollan explains that corn growers tend to use their land to grow only corn with no crop rotation. So while the growers are making the most money they can, they are depleting the soil of nutrients, which means they need more and stronger fertilizers to grow the corn, which ultimately weakens the land. According to Mr. Pollan, "The environmental footprint of HFCS is deep and wide."
So, you've got high fructose corn syrup in almost every packaged product on the market. And these products have morphed into gigantic, cheap, readily accessible products. As a result we as a society eat more and we get bigger. But is that HFCS's fault? Does HFCS affect us differently than sugar causing us to eat more, metabolize fat differently or somehow trick our body into storing more fat?
The jury is still out. Research studies have shown mixed results. In a well publicized study by Princeton University, researchers there found that "in addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides."
But in another study by Kathleen J Melanson, at the University of Rhode Island, her findings concluded that there were no significant differences between HFCS and sugar in how they affected the body's production of glucose, insulin, leptin or gherlin (hormone that stimulates hunger).
The debate continues.
As far as the environmental impact goes: the reality is all crops require energy to grow and transport. What makes corn, and ultimately high fructose corn syrup a target, is that there are substantial federal subsidies for corn growers. While at the same time there are high tariffs on sugar imports. So until that changes, the incentive for growing massive amounts of corn - and it's impact on our environment - will continue.
Whether or not high fructose corn syrup is inherently bad for us, and can be directly attributed to the rising obesity levels in this country is still unknown. What is know though is that we now live in a society where the majority of our foods have been sweetened. Almost all processed, packaged foods contain some added sweetener. As a result, we have changed the way we eat. We seek out more sweetness and expect a more intense sweet flavor from everything we eat and drink.
We as consumers need to be aware of this phenomenon. We need to read labels and know what we're putting into out bodies. We need to recognize that consuming too much sweetener whether it comes from table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or any other source is not good for us. An empty calorie is still an empty calorie and should be consumed in moderation.
Author: Sue Ridgeway