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The Battle Over High Fructose Corn Syrup

Cynthia K. Papierniak


There is a war going on, and I am not referring to the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan or even the Democratic vs. Republican skirmishes over the proposed health bill. It is a war between the Corn Refiners Association and the American public.

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) represents the interests of corporations whose products milled from corn include the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Although HFCS remains the staple sweetener in our processed foods, there has been a decline in its use the past two years. This decline has been brought about by a consumer demand to ditch HFCS and switch back to sugar. In an effort to reassure the public that HFCS is a natural product processed from a natural grain the CRA launched a multimillion dollar advertising campaign and their website, Not only was their television advertising lampooned (several parodies on Youtube), their advertising blitz made people more aware of HFCS than they ever were before. We started to read labels and were shocked to find that almost everything contained HFCS, even foods that are not considered sweet. When Mom-in-chief Michelle Obama declared that HFCS was off limits at the White House, people scoured their pantries and threw out the Oreos.

The CRA boasts that HFCS is their greatest technological advancement. Corn syrup has been around for a while; that bottle of Karo syrup that your mother used for pecan pie is pure corn syrup which is pure glucose. But corn syrup does not meet the sweetness level of sucrose. Glucose can be converted to fructose (intensely sweet) with the enzyme glucose isomerase. Unfortunately, the enzyme is too expensive to just add it to the corn syrup slurry. In the 70's, Japanese chemists made a brilliant adaptation. They charged resin columns with the enzyme and poured the glucose syrup over the column allowing the enzyme to convert the glucose to fructose as it passed through. The benefit of this method is that the enzyme could be reused, and thus HFCS was born.

The Rise of HFCS

HFCS was introduced into the food markets at a time when food manufacturers were begging for an alternative sweetener. The high import tariffs on sugar were forcing food manufacturers to pay more than double the world price of sugar. With Nixon farm policies in the 1970's under the direction of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, corn farmers were encouraged to plant corn “from fence to fence” and they were underwritten by government subsidies. Those policies made HFCS even cheaper to produce. Slowly, food manufacturers changed their recipes. But the big switch came in 1984 when Coca-cola and Pepsi starting using HFCS. The profits of the corn refiners and soda companies soared.

According to the CRA, HFCS has attributes other than its sucrose like sweetness: in liquid form it mixes well with flavors, preserves moistness, extends shelf-life, reduces crystallization in frozen foods, and enhances browning in baked goods. Today, HFCS is used in all national brands of soda and sports quenchers, fruit drinks, and lemonades. It is found in condiments, salad dressings, jams, spaghetti sauces, soups, breads, cereals, cookies, crackers, candies, nuts, prepared frozen foods, yogurt, ice cream, luncheon meats, canned vegetables, and other food items. It is also found in chewing gum, cough syrups, nutrition supplements, and some tooth pastes. It is not found in dog or cat food.

Due to the corn subsidies we had this marvelously inexpensive sweetener. Well, we started guzzling and we started super-sizing and we started to get big. Perhaps as an outgrowth of the mantra of the 80's “greed is good,” we started to super-size everything for no other reason than that we could. And the food manufacturers did not try to reel us in. Instead, the soda companies replaced the quaint 6 ½ oz glass bottles with 2-liter plastic jugs so we could safely lift the containers while bottle caps were replaced with screw caps so we could drink the last drop. And we got bigger.

Low in Fat, High in Fructose
In the 90's we couldn’t ignore that our profile reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock, and no matter how we down graded the dress sizing, we knew that we had to change our eating habits. Fatty foods were considered the chief nemesis and federally regulated food labels listed fat content first. The public screamed “low fat” and food manufacturers came to our rescue. They offered us whole lines of foods that had reduced fat; however, we were unaware that the sugar content (including HFCS) was increased to reduce the apparent percentage of fat. A classic example of this is salad dressings. Compare a low-fat and regular bottle of salad dressing from the same manufacturer. There’s a good chance that HFCS substitutes for the fat. Remember Snackwells? They took out the fat and added more sugar. This writer fell into that trap. And guess what, we got bigger and now we’re getting sicker. We’re developing metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, and our kids don’t look too good either.

In 2004, a landmark publication by Dr. Bray opened Pandora’s box.  Dr. Bray demonstrated that the curve of increasing obesity over the past three decades was parallel to the increase in our HFCS consumption. He theorized that HFCS was metabolized differently than sucrose and this difference contributed to our health woes. Of course, the CRA said that the data proved only a correlation,  not a causal relation.

So how is HFCS different from sucrose? Sucrose is a disaccharide., a double sugar, composed of one glucose molecule linked to one fructose molecule. Glucose and fructose have the same chemical weight and therefore the ratio of fructose:glucose is precisely 1:1. The glycosidic bond that links the two simple sugars is relatively weak and can be cleaved by an acid. In our body, sucrose is split by sucrase, an enzyme in our gut. This enzyme not only separates the disaccharide but serves as a “policeman” for how fast the reaction occurs. Once the bond is cleaved the simple sugars, fructose and glucose, can enter the bloodstream.

HFCS is only a blend of fructose and glucose. There is no glycosidic bond and  no requirement for sucrase. The simple sugars directly enter the blood stream without enzyme regulation. According to the CRA, there are two grades of HFCS used in foods and beverages, HFCS-55 and HFCS-42. HFCS-55 is used to sweeten beverages: sodas, sports quenchers, and fruit drinks. Its composition is 55%fructose: 45% glucose. The ratio of fructose to glucose is equivalent to 1.22:1 or 22% extra fructose. What does this ratio mean in everyday terms? If you drink  five sodas sweetened with HFCS-55, the extra fructose is equivalent to four cans of soda sweetened with 50:50 sucrose and a fifth can of pure fructose. In 2006, 30% of our annual per capita intake of 66 lbs of HFCS came through drin king beverages  sweetened with HFCS-55.

Dr. Bray’s paper turned the tide. Research labs were delving into the problem.  The public was finally taking notice. We were being educated and our vocabulary was being enriched with words like leptin (appetite controlling hormone), and ghrelin (appetite stimulating hormone). The debate was on. Is HFCS inherently worse than sugar (sucrose) or are we awash in the sweetener because it is so cheap?  Experts took both sides.

A series of publications in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said, no, HFCS is not inherently sinister. They measured several metabolic parameters and subjective satiety; however, their research focused on the short term metabolic affects  comparing different sweeteners on healthy volunteers. The American Dietary Association preaches the catechism that a calorie is a calorie and regardless of the origin of that calorie, if your energy intake is more than energy expenditure you gain weight. Their mantra: portion control and reduce intake of all sugars. Body builders believe there really is no good sugar and to differentiate between sucrose and HFCS borders on the ridiculous. A few of the publicly known M.D.’s who preach the treachery of HFCS include Dr. Mercola, Dr. Eades, Dr. Flavin, and Oprah’s Yo u Docs, Dr. Roizen and Dr. Oz. These medical consultants stress the metabolic dangers of HFCS and urge everybody to eliminate it from their diet. Two books have had a major effect on the public’s awareness of the necessity to choose carefully what we eat, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad calories. Both books refrained from throwing darts at the CRA, but they both made a dent into our food-eating psyche.

Cumulative research has nailed fructose as the culprit. Where as glucose can be metabolized by any cell in the body, fructose can only be metabolized in the liver. In the liver fructose can be converted to glucose for energy utilization but in the presence of glucose it breaks down to form triglycerides which contribute to LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and pose an atherosclerotic risk. Fructose favors lipogenesis, fat production, especially visceral adiposity (”belly fat”). Although fructose does not elicit the secretion of insulin, in an ironic twist excess fructose can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor of type II diabetes. Fructose, does not elicit the leptin hormone which signals the brain “I’m full”and therefore can lead to overeating. Fructose metabolism yields uric acid which is problematic for those with gout and which can induce the formation of kidney stones. Fructose is more easily glycated (cross linked with proteins) than is glucose leading to advanced glycation end=2 0products (AGE) which are destructive to cells. Fructose can disturb the mineral balance leading to osteoporosis. Excess fructose can lead to Non-alcoholic-fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in both children and adults. When NAFLD is deemed irreversible the only medical course is a liver transplant.

At this point one has to remember that both HFCS and sucrose contain fructose. Several well credentialed experts also contend that the results of comparing fructose-sweetened with glucose-sweetened beverages is not applicable to the fructose-glucose sweeteners we ingest. However, any researcher worth his lab coat knows that a good protocol keeps as many parameters as possible constant in order to test the pronounced effect of one variable.

The Mercury Scare
While working at the FDA, Dr. Renee Dufault tested  several batches of HFCS for mercury contamination. Several of the samples tested positive. The presence of mercury was attributed to an older method for producing caustic soda (lye) which is used in the production of HFCS.  Dr. Dufault published her results after she left the FDA. Dr. Wallinga, a researcher at Minnesota’s Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, followed up on her research and tested foods for mercury, especially those foods marketed to children. He found trace amounts of mercury in a third of the samples tested. The CRA yelled foul, and said that his research wouldn’t withstand scientific scrutiny . Dr. Wallinga’s research design did have an obvious flaw. In his zeal he forgot to test foods without HFCS for mercury contamination. Nevertheless, according to bloggers, the amounts of mercury found in one third of the foods tested ranged from “one magnitude less than our drinking water limits” to “very high” levels of mercury. The issue of mercury contamination lingers.

The Starbucks Effect
The CRA recently took two major hits when both Snapple and Starbucks took  the HFCS out of their products. The CRA launched a militant response, which included a full  page article in the Chicago Tribune. The CRA’s fighting strategy: the switch from HFCS to sugar has nothing to do with the health factor; it is only a marketing ploy in a tight economy. Other analysts have referred to the switch from HFCS to sugar as a problem of public perception. Dietitians said that the return to sugar would not be any healthier and serves only as a distraction.

Well, let’s consider the average Starbucks customer. There are those statistics about increasing obesity. Type II diabetes, has dropped the moniker, Adult onset Diabetes mellitus (AODM) since it is now a concern for pediatricians. There are rumblings about trace mercury contamination. There is the knowledge that only in the USA is Coke made with HFCS (International Coke is made with real sugar). Europe does not have the=2 0sugar tariff/corn subsidy issues but they are very wary of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and for that reason, prohibit the use of HFCS. (This writer will not tackle the GMO issue, save for one statement. The corn which is used to produce HFCS may or may not be GMO; however, the three enzymes used in the production are undboutedly from GMO organisms that have been designed so the enzymes can withstand the rigors of the HFCS process) Finally, there is that undercurrent malaise that we have been duped by the ubiquitous presence of HFCS. And so the average Starbuck’s customer, who is paying $4 for their morning brew, demanded that they make the switch back to real sugar.

I wish the government would take a greater role in our obesity crisis, but I  expect no sweeping changes. In April 2008, HFCS was declared unnatural by the FDA. By August it had returned to its natural status, even though the FDA has yet to  define what natural is. In July 2008, the AMA straddled the fence and made the statement that HFCS doesn’t contribute to obesity any more that sugar does. The CRA is one powerful lobby.

I am heartened by the Starbucks and Snapple reversal, for it shows that consumers do have a say. I don’t foresee the big soda boys switching to sugar in the near future since that is probably the CRA ‘s life blood (although increased ethanol production from corn may raise the price of HFCS), but I do predict that some major food manufacturers, perhaps cereal companies, are going to make the switch. There are websites that list all the foods with HFCS including those from restaurants and fast foods, and there are websites like that list HFCS-free foods.  Some supermarket food chains have eliminated HFCS from their shelves. Stores like Trader Joes and Whole Foods are essentially HFCS-free. A school system in Colorado has recently banned HFCS from their vending machines and their cafeteria. At least now more people are paying attention.

Cynthia K. Papierniak
Oak Park, IL