But what exactly is high-fructose corn syrup? It’s a clear liquid, derived from a wet milling process of corn, and it’s about as sweet as table sugar — sucrose — but costs a lot less. (Even though corn prices have spiked in the past year, HFCS is still cheaper than refined sugar.) Regular table sugar is all sucrose, which is about half glucose and half fructose; the most common form of HFCS is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. It’s an industrial product, manufactured inside the vast mills of food processors Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Cargill and others.
HFCS owes its existence to the scientists who perfected the technique to make it back in the ’50s and ’60s. But it owes its ubiquity to the agricultural policies of the past 30 years, policies that have encouraged the unprecedented production of corn. (See “Butz and Ears.”) The first commercial shipment of HFCS happened in 1967, according to the Corn Refiners Association; by 1990, HFCS had completely remade the soft drink industry. Cheap corn meant cheap sweeteners, which translated into supersized drink servings for very little money. Soda pop went from being an occasional treat to being an everyday thing.
A study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that energy intake (i.e., calories consumed) from soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks (most of which are sweetened with HFCS) increased 135 percent between 1977 and 2001. During the same time, energy intake from milk dropped by 38 percent, meaning that the nutritionally empty calories of soda were replacing the more nutrient-dense calories of milk.
Sugar + Consumption = Obesity
Thirty years ago, your trip down the supermarket aisles would have been very different. We had fewer processed foods to choose from, and those products were sweetened with either sugar or plain corn syrup, which has been around since the late 19th century. The yearly consumption of all caloric sweeteners combined averaged about 120 pounds per person in 1970, and that rate remained stable through the mid-1980s — about the time that HFCS hit the big time. Starting in 1985, annual per capita consumption of sweeteners began to rise rapidly, says the USDA, peaking in 1999 at more than 147 pounds, an increase of close to 23 percent in less than 30 years.
Rising rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes have mirrored the growing consumption of sugars — including HFCS — over the past 30 years, but HFCS isn’t the sole culprit. Americans consume about 200 more calories per day than we did 30 years ago, and our activity levels have decreased. However, that’s not to say HFCS is free of blame; the picture is much more complicated than asimple cause-and-effect equation.
“The problem is that people are consuming too many calories, and excess calories are converted to fat,” says Janet Beary, clinical assistant professor in the exercise physiology and metabolism program at WSU Spokane. “In other words, people are drinking sodas when they should be drinking water. And there has to be a balance with physical activity.”
Dieticians and nutrition researchers continue to analyze whether the problem is HFCS or simply the increase in consumption of sugar in all its myriad forms. (See “What’s in a Name?”) Some say that HFCS is metabolized differently than sugar, leading to increased insulin resistance and raising the levels of triglycerides in the blood. Others say sugar is sugar, regardless of its form, and the basic problem is that we’re eating too much of the stuff.
“There is a difference in the way [HFCS] is absorbed,” Beary says. “But there’s still a lot of of debate. Some people are more predisposed to diabetes, and their insulin response [to HFCS] may be different [than to sugar]. But the basic problem is too many calories. And sugar is high in calories. And we like it.”
Mary Beth Sherwood, a registered dietician and certified diabetes educator, heads up the Diabetes Education Center at Rockwood Clinic. She counsels patients to lower their sugar consumption, but she doesn’t single out HFCS.
“The verdict [on HFCS] isn’t completely in, but I think there’s reason to be concerned,” she says. “Studies with rats found [HFCS] appears to affect insulin sensitivity, but in human trials it appeared to not affect insulin sensitivity. Some theories suggest that [HFCS in soft drinks] is not promoting the same satiety as sugar, but there’s not good research at this point — is it because it’s liquid, or because of high-fructose corn syrup? And some limited research is suggestive of changes in body fat distribution [due to HFCS] — but it’s speculation, not solid research.”
Both scientific studies and consumer attitudes regarding HFCS today are similar to the status of trans fats about 10 years ago, but without hard data to go on, people in the medical community are careful to point out that we just don’t know whether HFCS will turn out to be worse than sugar — or simply just as bad.
“When people come across these tidbits of information, I say the reality is we need to focus on minimizing sugar intake generally,” says Sherwood. “Both [sugar and HFCS] are high-calorie foods, and that’s what we’ve got to drive home. We need to be cautious to not create an alarmist view [about HFCS].”
Still, consumers are beginning to pay attention to HFCS. Several books, along with the recent documentary film King Corn, have focused on the ubiquity of HFCS and other products of industrialized corn agriculture in the American marketplace. Consumers are starting to seek out products without HFCS — some because of potential health hazards, some because of the environmental impact of Big Ag, and some because they want to eat simpler foods grown close to home.
Some food producers are responding to consumers’ consternation about HFCS by switching back to refined sugar or other sweeteners — although some are simply switching to other corn sweeteners whose names haven’t received as much press. Franz Family Bakeries in Portland now advertises that its breads and rolls contain no HFCS, similar to the spate of products that began touting “No Trans Fats” a few years ago. And who knows — rising corn prices (thanks to ethanol demand) may just put an end to the favorable pricing for HFCS, thus leveling the playing field among sweeteners.
In All Things, Moderation
So what’s the bottom line? “Focus on healthier carbs, more high-fiber products, whole grains, breads, beans, and whole fruits, not juice,” says Mary Beth Sherwood. “A little dish of ice cream here, a cookie there, is OK — balancing it out is the important thing. Serve desserts in smaller dishes — put your ice cream in a nice dessert dish instead of a cereal bowl.”
Janet Beary of WSU Spokane agrees. “The evidence is there that it’s best to eat more whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed foods,” she says. “I think that’s the best way to reduce all the chronic diseases associated with the overconsumption of fats and sugars. It’s just moderation.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables may be pricier in the short term than sodas and snack foods made with HFCS — but in the long run, the health care services needed to treat obesity and diabetes are far more costly.
Butz and Ears
Earl Butz, former secretary of agriculture under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, died peacefully in his sleep in February at age 98. Most of the obituaries written about him focused on the ill-advised racial joke that cost him his job in 1976, but his real legacy is the agricultural policy he put in place during the mid-1970s. When Butz became secretary of agriculture in 1971, U.S. farm policy still operated very much in the mold of FDR’s New Deal, a system that emerged out of the Great Depression and was designed to prevent overproduction.
However, when food prices skyrocketed in 1972 and 1973, Butz faced increasing political pressure to do something to quell the growing protests. He turned ag policy on its ear, setting up a system of subsidies that paid farmers to grow commodity crops, rather than paying them to not plant, as New Deal policies did. He engineered trade deals overseas to increase the markets for American grain and encouraged farmers to plant corn and soybeans “fencerow to fencerow.”
Corn production increased, and prices fell; soon the nation had a surplus of cheap corn. So corn refiners created new products, including high-fructose corn syrup, a less-expensive substitute for sugar. Thanks to inexpensive corn, HFCS found its way into all sorts of processed foods. Food prices stabilized.
Fat Land author Greg Critser writes, “Butz had delivered everything the modern American consumer wanted. A new plenitude of cheap, abundant and tasty calories had arrived.”
The system of subsidies that Butz engineered remains largely intact today, and food in this country continues to be abundant and cheap. The percentage of Americans’ household income spent on food declined. The former secretary, interviewed a short time ago by the filmmakers of King Corn, stated his belief in the lasting benefit of his policies.
“We feed ourselves with 16 to 17 percent of take-home pay,” he told the filmmakers. “That’s the basis of our affluence now, the fact that we spend less on food. It’s America’s best-kept secret.”
The outspoken patriarch of industrialized corn production has seen his last harvest, but HFCS and other products of his legacy remain prominent in our food supply.
What’s in a Name?
Sugar also goes by many names on nutritional labels. Some are relatively easy to identify, especially once you learn that the suffix “-ose” is used in the chemical names of sweeteners. But some are harder to pick out. Here are some of the names you might find listed on labels:
Barley malt syrup: a dark brown liquid sweetener made from barley, about half as sweet as white sugar; contains maltose
Brown sugar: refined sugar from cane or beets that retains some of the surface molasses syrup; about 95 percent sucrose
Corn syrup: made from cornstarch; mostly glucose, less sweet than sugar; may also be listed as glucose syrup<
Corn syrup solids: corn syrup with most of the water removed
Crystalline fructose: fructose in its solid form, made from cornstarch; slightly sweeter than sugar
Dextrose: crystalline glucose that’s been refined from a starch; most comes from cornstarch, but may also be made from rice or wheat; less sweet than sugar (sucrose); may be listed as corn sugar, rice sugar or wheat sugar
Evaporated cane juice: crystallized juice from sugar cane; undergoes less processing than standard table sugar, and is often grown organically; sometimes listed as unrefined sugar, milled cane, demerara or muscovado
Fructose: a simple sugar that naturally occurs in fruit, vegetables, grains and honey; sweeter than sucrose
Fruit Juice Concentrates: fruit juices with most of the water removed, used most often in fruit drinks and canned fruit
Galactose: a less-sweet form of sugar usually found linked to glucose to form lactose, or milk sugar
Glucose: a simple sugar that is the body’s primary source of energy; also found naturally in many foods
High-fructose corn syrup: a cornstarch-derived syrup that has been treated with enzymes to convert glucose to fructose, resulting in a sweeter product; HFCS-55 is 55 percent fructose; HFCS-42 is 42 percent fructose
Honey: a liquid mixture of sugars produced by bees from flower nectar; contains about 40 percent fructose, 30 percent glucose and 20 percent water
Invert Sugar: a liquid product that contains equal amounts of glucose and fructose; it is made from sucrose but is sweeter than white sugar
Lactose: the naturally occurring sugar found in milk and milk products; made of glucose and galactose
Maltodextrin: a commercial sweetener made by starch hydrolysis from corn, potatoes or rice
Maltose: a fermentable sugar derived from grains, such as barley, and a common ingredient in the brewing process
Maple syrup: a concentrated mixture of sugars made from the sap of sugar maple trees; about 60 percent sucrose and 33 percent water; most commercial pancake syrups now are a mixture of sucrose and artificial maple flavorings
Molasses: a thick syrup left after processing sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar; dark brown in color with a high sugar concentration
Powdered or confectioner’s sugar: granulated sugar that has been pulverized and mixed with a small amount of cornstarch. Available in several degrees of fineness
Sucrose: contains 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose; may be listed as cane sugar, table sugar or sugar
Sugar: granulated, refined cane or beet sugar; 100 percent sucrose
Turbinado sugar: raw sugar that has been partially processed, with only the surface molasses washed off; blond in color, with relatively large crystals
The American Diabetes Association divides sugars into two categories: naturally occurring sugars found in foods like milk and fruits, and sugars that are added to foods during preparation or processing. Nutritional labels list the total grams of all sugars — naturally occurring and added — in a serving, but since most Americans aren't fluent in metric, we may need a little help turning those numbers into something meaningful. If you divide the number of sugar grams by 4, you'll get the number of teaspoons of sugars per serving. The USDA recommends no more than 10 to 12 teaspoons of added sugars-that is, from sources other than milk or fruit--per day, so now you've got some concrete numbers to work with. Each teaspoon of sugar provides 15 calories.
The average 12-ounce can of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugars, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, so drinking just one can a day uses up your recommended daily intake of added sugar — and that doesn’t count the added sugars (mostly HFCS) found in cereals, crackers, breads, salad dressings, condiments and desserts.
Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser (Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books, 2003)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, 2006)
Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger (Hudson Street Press, 2007)
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, 2008)
Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty by Mark Winne (Beacon Press, 2008)
King Corn, a film by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, directed by Aaron Wolfe, 2007 (available on DVD)