High Fructose Corn Syrup is the Tea of the Devil! Or is it?

RECENTLY, I STARTED LISTENING TO STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW, a podcast by the folks at HowStuffWorks. A recent episode on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) caught my attention because it’s a hot topic in the food industry and in our family. When The Boss and I are shopping for food for Peanut, we keep an eye out for HFCS in the ingredients and avoid it as much as we can. And, of course, most of us have seen the ads recently that the Corn Refiners Association has run lately on how there’s nothing wrong with HFCS. We all know that’s a load of crap. Right?

Let’s start with some quick definitions:

Sucrose is what comprises table sugar. It’s naturally occurring (sugar cane or sugar beet), but is typically refined and that is what the white sugar we use so often is. It breaks down to glucose and fructose in a weak acid environment (like the stomach).

Glucose is basically fuel for cells. It can be metabolized for energy by most of your body, including your brain.

Fructose is the other part of sucrose, and can only be metabolized by the liver. Typically, it’s considered a problem as excessive fructose consumption can lead to a host of different problems.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is a commercially produced sweetener that contains fructose and glucose. HFCS 55 is 55% fructose and 45% glucose (basically the same as table sugar), and is mostly used in soft drinks. HFCS 42 is 42% fructose and is used in most other foods. HCFS 90 is 90% fructose, and is pretty much just combined with HFCS 42 to make HFCS 55. Food manufacturers like HFCS because it’s cheaper than sucrose.

So why do food manufacturers even bother with HFCS if it’s so similar to sucrose? A small part of the allure is because it’s a liquid, which means it blends easily. But the big part is that it’s cheaper than sucrose. This is primarily due to tariffs enacted in 1977 that greatly increased the cost of imported sugar. Combine that with government subsidies that make it more lucrative for farmers to grow corn and it’s easy to see why HFCS is so popular in the US. If you look at the EU, they have production caps on HFCS and it only accounts for less than 2% of the sweetener production there.

So why do people hate HFCS so much then? Now we get into rhetoric, politics, and some bad science. Everyone’s got studies. Everyone’s got anecdotal evidence. But what’s the truth? One would normally thing that the folks at HowStuffWorks would have gotten this all right, but they seem to be just about as tilted as everyone else. I deal in facts, so let’s take a look at the major talking points and see where they break down:

There’s a direct correlation between the increased use of HFCS and obesity rates in the US. Repeat after me – correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things happened at the same time, that does not mean that one caused the other. I could just as easily show that the obesity rates map to the use of computers, video games, and the increase of “knowledge work”. If this is going to be the argument, you need a causal relationship. Many think that some of the next points provide it.

There was a study that showed that fructose caused mice to get fat. Yes. That was fructose alone, and it was not HFCS. Not the same thing.

HFCS messes with your body’s natural satiety response. There are two hormones responsible for the satiety response. One is ghrelin, which tells the brain you’re hungry. The other is leptin, which tells the brain that you’re full. Glucose triggers the response (less ghrelin, more leptin), while fructose does not. But HowStuffWorks got this one wrong. HFCS has both glucose and fructose, and there have been several studies, including one by Melanson et. al. (yes, I know that’s a CRA website. You can also find it here) that show that there is no difference in the satiety response between sucrose and HFCS. It’s been metioned that PepsiCo paid for part of that study, but it also hasn’t been disputed in the almost 3 years since it was presented.

Fructose is only metabolized by the liver, and the liver can only take so much before it starts making triglycerides. This is absolutely right. However, HFCS is no different than sucrose in this regard. Sucrose is broken down into glucose and fructose in the stomach and small intestine, and from there it’s absorbed. Fructose makes its way to the liver, and it doesn’t matter where it originally came from.

If HFCS really isn’t that bad for you when compared to sucrose, why are we so fat? The problem here is that people don’t want to hear the hard answers. People want to blame someone or something outside of themselves for all their troubles. It’s the CRA’s fault, because they’re pushing this cheap, refined sweetener on us. If we can just get rid of this, we’ll all be healthy. Won’t someone think of the children???

Honestly, I thought I was going to write the other post. I thought I was going to write about the evils of HFCS. Right up until I did my research and took a critical and unbiased (as much as possible) look at the information available. The answer is just not that simple. But I’ve got a few good ideas. I’ll tell you about them tomorrow.


I'm a dad, a small business owner, a systems engineer, a developer, and any number of other things.

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