Perception and High Fructose Corn Syrup
The public has spoken. Consumer demand for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has dropped. According to latest figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumer demand decreased 11 percent between 2003 and 2008. HFCS is blamed for the rise in obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related medical problems. But is the connection cause-and-effect or guilt-by-association?
The great American sweet tooth
The sad fact is that Americans love their sugar. Three quarters of the sweeteners that enter our bodies are in the form of prepared foods, including soft drinks, candy, cereals, catchup, salad dressing, and the list goes on and on.
Sweetness is supplied by HFCS and other sugars, such as sucrose (cane), beet sugar, maple sugar, honey, and malt, and those with names only food processors know, like invert sugar, maltodextrins and others. Presently, yearly consumption of all sugars averages 147 pounds across the population and of that number, 53.1 pounds are from added HFCS.
From whence it came
Enzyme technology that drove the hydrolysis of glucose to fructose resulted in the commercialization high-fructose corn syrup in 1967. As sugar prices rose, food and beverage manufacturers replaced more and more cane and beet sugar with HFCS. But price was not the only reason for substitution; HFCS is simply sweeter. An article in Amber Waves, a publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, notes, "industry analysts report that, on a sweetness equivalent/dry basis, HFCS-42 (one of the blends of HFCS) cost an average of 13.6 cents per pound in 2005, while the price of wholesale refined beet sugar averaged 29.5 cents per pound." Also worth noting: crop subsidies made to corn growers kept the price of HFCS low.
The scientific argument
Most scientists find little difference between HFCS and table sugar. Table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, while the HFCS used in baked goods contains 58% glucose and 42% fructose. The HFCS used in beverages have a 45% glucose and 55% fructose distribution.
At issue is whether the digestion, absorption and metabolism of fructose differs from glucose. Unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate the production of insulin and appetite-suppressing leptin. Those hormones regulate the appetite and so, without them, over-consumption is favored. In addition, excess fructose leads to more unhealthy triglycerides and greater fat storage in the viscera and in liver. The argument is covered in a commentary to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But, still, there is no indisputable scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup consumption causes obesity or diseases in humans and lab rats. In fact, rat research uses pure fructose in large amounts, which is not part of the human diet. And let's not forget that table sugar is half fructose.
The public opinion
Many Americans dislike HFCS for non-health reasons: the corn used is often genetically modified, they are not happy about cell and tissue damage in vetro, and the politics and environmental impact of intensive corn production are a concern. They are not waiting for scientific conclusions; they are speaking with their wallets now. But at the same time HFCS consumption dropped, sugar refining increased by about 7 percent.
The Bottom Line: Instead of focusing on HFCS, how about reducing the consumption of all sugar? In nature, sweetness from ripe fruit, vegetables, and milks is expected to be enough. Besides calories, sugar has almost no nutritional value. It promotes tooth decay and its yummy taste leads to overeating, which may turn out to be a physical addiction. Would we eat half the food we polish off if not for its sweet taste? Let's face it: the sweet stuff goes down easy, whether or not corn is to blame.
Is HFCS a villain in your home? How about table sugar?