High Fructose Corn Syrup
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | May 6, 2005

Americans have a real sweet tooth, as do our Canadian and Mexican friends. Our quest for sweet products has led to the development of a variety of sweeteners to satisfy our craving for sweet foods. One of the most frequently used sweeteners is high fructose corn syrup or HFCS--it’s in carbonated beverages, baked goods, canned fruits, jams and jellies, and dairy products. This sweetener has also been implicated in the rise of obesity in the United States (1), and is the subject of several alarmist websites. Is it as bad as many people seem to think? That’s what this Newsletter is all about.

What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
While it seems like stating the obvious, high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn. Specifically, corn starch is broken down into glucose and then enzymatically converted to fructose. At that point, the two sugars are combined into two different formulations: HFCS-55 which is sweeter and HFCS-42. HFCS-55 is 55% fructose with the remainder as sucrose and other sugars; HFCS-42 is 42% fructose with the rest as glucose and other sugars. HFCS-55 is predominantly found in soft drinks, while HFCS-42 is used in canned fruits, condiments, and baked goods, as well as in the dairy industry.

Actually, the name is somewhat misleading--there’s really nothing “high fructose” about it. Table sugar is equal parts of glucose and fructose. In other words, HFCS-42 actually has less fructose than table sugar.

Is HFCS bad for you?
If you read the newspapers, health magazines, and Internet, you would think that HFCS was the worst food ever created by the agriculture industry. There are two primary causes for concern. First, that HFCS makes you fat; and second, that HFCS is metabolized so differently it increases your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and more. Let’s examine each issue separately.

Does HFCS make you fat?
In 2004, a commentary in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition made the case that as the consumption of HFCS increased since the late 1960s, obesity has increased (1). The primary diagram in the article does indicate that as the amount of HFCS in our food increased, obesity also increased. Is this cause and effect?

HFCS very well may be a contributing factor in obesity for those who consume high amounts of it, but to place the blame on HFCS may be an exaggeration. Look at the other changes that have occurred since the ’60s: portion sizes of all foods have increased dramatically, the number of fast food restaurants has increased along with the number of meals eaten there, jobs and leisure pastimes are more sedentary, and mandatory physical education in schools and colleges has almost disappeared. All are contributing factors to the obesity problem in the United States, and some may have a greater influence than HFCS.

Does HFCS make you sick?
Almost all research on the negative effects of fructose was done by creating a copper deficiency in the animals and feeding them a high-fructose diet--up to 60% of caloric intake. It’s important to note that the researchers did not use HFCS. They reported serious negative effects that included heart damage, abnormal liver function, and elevated blood lipids (2-4). However, it’s more likely that the copper deficiency causes abnormal metabolism of the fructose, not the opposite.

The question then becomes what impact does this have in healthy human beings? To date, not very much--there’s no evidence that we have rampant copper deficiency in the United States, so we can’t assume there’s a direct comparison between the animals in the study and typical humans. Further, there’s no evidence that HFCS will cause any negative effects in the amounts that healthy human beings typically consume. Of course, anything consumed excessively can have a negative effect, but that’s not what all the excitement is about. The one verifiable problem with taking in excess sugars is that it contributes to tooth decay, and the same is true for HFCS.

The critics seem to be focused on HFCS as the culprit. That simply is not true--the problem is that people eat and drink too much of it. HFCS is not bad for you when taken in moderation in fruit juices (although whole fruit is better), food bars, yogurt, and the occasional dessert. It can be part of a reasonable eating program. And a reasonable eating program is the better life way.

  1. George A Bray, Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry M Popkin Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;79:537–43.

  2. Fields M, et al. Effects of different dietary carbohydrates on hepatic enzymes of copper-deficient rats. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1985 Mar;178(3):362-6.

  3. Redman RS, et al. Dietary fructose exacerbates the cardiac abnormalities of copper deficiency in rats. Atherosclerosis. 1988 Dec;74(3):203-14.

  4. Fields M and Lewis, CG. Dietary Fructose but Not Starch is Responsible for Hyperlipidemia Associated with Copper Deficiency in Rats: Effect of High-Fat Diet. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 1999. 18 (1) 83–87.
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