High Fructose Corn Syrup

Soft drinks

What’s it made from?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) starts as regular corn. Considering that in 2014, 93% of all corn crops planted in the United States were genetically modified varieties and most HFCS is produced in the US, you can be fairly sure that your HFCS is made from genetically modified corn.

How is it made?

Regular corn is dried and milled to produce corn starch. Starch is made of long chains of glucose. Corn starch is then mixed with water and the enzyme alpha-amylase, which is produced from the bacteria Bacillus licheniformis. This enzyme breaks down the starch into shorter chains of glucose.

Another enzyme, glucoamylase, is added, which is made from a variety of microorganisms, primarily the fungi Aspergillus niger, Aspergillus awamori and Rhizopus oryzae. Glucoamylase breaks the short chains down into glucose molecules. The solution is then filtered and demineralized.

You now have regular corn syrup.

To create high fructose corn syrup, one more enzyme is added, xylose isomerase, which is produced from various bacteria. This enzyme converts the glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 53 percent glucose, with a few other sugars making up the balance. This is known as HFCS 42, which gets filtered and demineralized again.

Some of this new solution gets further refined by liquid chromatography, a purifying and separation process that creates HFCS 90. The HFCS 90 is mixed with the HFCS 42 to make HFCS 55, which is the most commonly used HFCS commercially.

Is it safe?

Research is showing various health concerns related to high fructose corn syrup.

A significant finding is its potential link to obesity. A 2010 study by Princeton University showed that rats fed high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those fed only table sugar, even when they ate the same amount of calories. Long term consumption of high fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat for the rats, especially in the abdomen. The rats also had increased triglyceride fats circulating in their blood. Triglycerides can contribute to hardening of the arteries and risk of stroke and heart disease.

A study at the University of California, Davis, had participants consume HFCS-sweetened beverages over a two week period. The beverages increased in HFCS content over the two weeks, starting at 0%, then moving to 10%, 17.5%, and 25%. The results showed dose-dependent increases in blood levels of uric acid and lipids (fats) and lipoproteins (compounds of fats and proteins) linked to risk of cardiovascular disease. This suggests that the risk of cardiovascular mortality is positively associated with consumption of increasing amounts of added HFCS.

In addition, researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southern California found that countries with high use of HFCS as a sweetener have a 20% higher proportion of the population with type 2 diabetes compared to countries that do not use it.

The Verdict

Between the concerns around genetically modified foods and the expanding list of health problems associated with high-fructose corn syrup, this is definitely a food additive to avoid.

If there are such proven health risks associated with HFCS, why is it being used?

It’s likely based on economics. Corn was a profitable crop in the US throughout the 1800s and early 1900s as the US grew and farms expanded. That all changed during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The corn industry had grown so large that there was a severe over supply of corn on the market. Corn prices plummeted, and those who were unemployed couldn’t even afford to buy corn or corn products that were dirt cheap.

That’s where government subsidies started. The government urged farmers to leave some of their land unplanted, which would lower the supply of corn and raise prices. Any profits the farmers lost due to the unplanted land were paid as subsidies to the farmers from the federal government.

Presumably this was meant to be a temporary economic stimulus measure, but somehow it became permanent. Then it became downright twisted.

The process to create HFCS 42 was introduced in 1957. In the late 1970s, the production of HFCS 55 began. Up until then, refined sugar had been used as the primary sweetener in foods. I’m sure it was no coincidence that the American government placed production quotas on domestic sugar and an import tariff on foreign sugar in 1977, while continuing to pay subsidies to corn growers. Consequently, the U.S. and Canadian prices of sugar are twice the global price to this day, while corn syrup is cheap.

Coca-Cola began using HFCS as a sweetener in 1980, and most other soft drink manufacturers also converted by the mid-1980s. And now this subsidized, cheap sweetener is so entrenched in US food production, it would take a massive economic upheaval to change the industry.

There’s one thing that could bring this change: when people stop buying products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. If there’s no market, the manufacturers are forced to change in order to meet the demands of consumers for healthier sweetener options.