A brief history of High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was first commercially produced in the late nineteenth century in the US. Deemed safe by the FDA in 1976, it nevertheless raised health concerns early on. HFCS became prevalent in the US as a sweetener from the 1970s, especially in soft drinks.
Corn growers have been subsidised in the US for about a century, making it significantly cheaper than cane sugar. It’s also attractive to producers because it’s easy to grow and is stable in acidic foods and drinks. HFCS can be found as a sweetener in lots of foods, from breakfast cereals to baked goods, juices and soft drinks, and especially highly processed foods.
Massive lobbying has kept the subsidies in place, despite the fact that HFCS has been pretty conclusively linked by numerous studies to the obesity epidemic in the US. Attempts to soften its reputation with the terms ‘corn sugar’ and ‘natural’ were finally clamped down on, and from 2008 US products containing HFCS are no longer allowed to use ‘natural’ in their labelling.
Multiple health risks
Studies into the health risks of HFCS have been conducted in many countries, and it’s widely agreed that it contributes to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. But it’s not actually banned anywhere. In the EU its use is tightly regulated, and in New Zealand it’s not very widely available, except in some imported products. The widespread use of HFCS seems to correlate to whether it is subsidised, making it cheaper for manufacturers to use as a sweetener.
So the question, perhaps, is not whether it should be banned, but whether corn should be subsidised to give it an advantage over other sugar crops.
Broadly, health problems linked to HFCS include metabolic issues, weight gain, cancer, fatty liver and liver stress, high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries leading to heart disease). It is also thought to contribute to leaky gut syndrome (because free fructose uses more energy to absorb), and even to mercury poisoning. There’s substantial research showing that products containing HFCS also contain significant amounts of mercury, presumably due to the manufacturing process.
The key to the problem is ‘free-floating’ fructose. To produce HFCS, corn starch is broken down into glucose to form corn syrup. It is then treated with enzymes, to turn some of the glucose into fructose. HFCS contains more fructose than normal table sugar, and this is a problem.
But fructose comes from fruit! How can it be bad?
The fructose in whole fruit comes packaged with nutrients that help with its absorption, but the fructose in HFCS is artificially synthesised and lacks these digestive aids. Whereas glucose can be metabolised by every cell in the body, fructose can only be processed by the liver. Among other things, this puts a load on the liver and the gut (exacerbating leaky gut syndrome), and poses problems for diabetics.
A study conducted at UC Davis found that after just two weeks of drinking sugary drinks sweetened with HFCS, participants’ blood samples showed an increase in lipoproteins, triglycerides and uric acid – all factors in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study was placebo-controlled with a beverage containing aspartame, an artificial sweetener.
A trial involving rats showed unusual weight gain after long-term HFCS consumption compared to other sweeteners. And it’s not about the calories. HFCS contains the same number of calories as white cane sugar, but cane sugar is roughly 50/50 fructose and glucose, whereas HFCS is up to 80% fructose.
Cancer cells love fructose
A study published in 2010 by the American Association for Cancer Research into the effect of fructose on pancreatic cancer found that cancer cells can metabolise fructose more quickly than glucose and therefore reproduce faster. This is because fructose and glucose are metabolised differently, which links in with the findings of other studies into the effect of fructose on diabetes and other metabolic conditions.
A study comparing the consumption of HFCS in Germany and the US found that the US consumed about 55 times more HFCS than Germany per capita, and that countries with high HFCS consumption had diabetes rates about 20 percent higher than HFCS-free countries.
Excessive fructose is also associated with fat accumulation in the liver, putting strain on the liver, which in turn can lead to increased insulin sensitivity and an inability to regulate fats in the blood. This has been linked with Type 2 diabetes.
What to look out for on labels
Products labelled ‘high fructose corn syrup’ and HFCS are easy to avoid, but don’t be fooled by ‘corn sugar’. This is not a natural sugar, it’s another name for HFCS, used to make it sound healthier. In some countries HFCS is referred to as ‘isoglucose’ or ‘glucose-fructose syrup’.
Processed white cane sugar is less dangerous that HFCS, so you could do worse than simply switching to ordinary white cane sugar. But here are also some healthier alternatives to look out for on product labelling, or for use in home cooking.
- Raw honey
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Brown rice syrup
Note: agave nectar/syrup is potentially worse than HFCS, though it’s often sold as a ‘natural’ sweetener, and should be avoided.