Sweet Poison: The Scary Facts on High Fructose Corn Syrup

Have you seen the ‘Sweet Surprise’ TV ads by the American Corn Growers Association? You know, the commercials which challenge you to report what’s specifically wrong with high fructose corn syrup. They actually claim that this syrup is ‘made from corn, doesn’t have artificial ingredients, has the same amount of calories as sugar and [is] fine in moderation.’ In fact, high fructose corn syrup is anything but natural and it’s high time to shed some light on this ingredient lurking in so many processed foods.

These facts about high fructose corn syrup will shock you!

What is high fructose corn syrup?

Let’s start by clearing one huge myth: also known as ‘corn syrup’, ‘corn sugar’ or ‘natural corn sugar’, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is NOT the same thing as table sugar (sucrose), fructose (from fruits) or simple corn syrup. Those who claim otherwise are simply trying to persuade you that there is nothing wrong with HFCS and that you shouldn’t think twice about consuming it.

You see, table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose whereas the proportion of fructose in HFCS varies – the most common types of HFCS are HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 which contain 42% and 55% fructose respectively. HFCS 90, which contains 90% fructose, is also available on the market.

corn syrup

Fact # 1: HFCS is NOT a natural food.

Companies such as Cadbury and Kraft have been criticized for labeling their products as ‘natural’ when they contain HFCS. Guess what refutation these food companies came up with? You’re right: corn is natural and HFCS doesn’t contain any chemical ingredient. To understand why this is blatant misinformation, it can help to know how HFCS is produced.

Pure corn syrup is 100% glucose, a sugar molecule which is less sweet than fructose. To make HFCS, corn (maize), which is generally genetically modified, is first ground to produce corn starch. This starch is then processed into corn syrup which is not yet sweet enough for use in food manufacturing. To enhance its sweet taste, synthetic substances such as glucose isomerase are added to the corn syrup – this process converts some of the glucose into fructose. Does this sound natural to you? Even the FDA has objected to the use of the term ‘natural’ on a product that contains HFCS due to the chemical agents used in its production!

high fructose corn syrup soda

Fact # 2: HFCS contains contaminants including mercury.

Scientists have found that HFCS often contains mercury due to the chlor-alkali products used in its manufacturing.

To analyze components in a product, scientists often use techniques such as chromatography. When HFCS was analyzed using this method, bizarre chemical peaks that are not glucose or fructose were identified…

Fact # 3: Research ‘showing’ that HFCS is the same as table sugar is backed by Big Food.

Before I dive into this, let me make this clear: I am not trying to imply that sugar is better for you than HFCS because they both adversely affect health. My point in writing this article is to raise awareness about HFCS because Big Food is spending a fortune in trying to prove that this product is not unhealthy.

Some say that there’s not much difference in the chemical structure of common HFCS and table sugar since both substances contain similar amounts of glucose and fructose. However, in HFCS, the fructose and glucose are not chemically bonded – these sugar molecules are floating free. On the other hand, the fructose and glucose in regular table sugar are chemically linked to each other and need to be separated in the gut. What this means is that the fructose in HFCS is more readily available that than the fructose in table sugar. The question is: is this difference relevant from a health perspective? According to many reputable health websites, it isn’t.

And these websites will even quote research articles concluding that:

  • Equal amounts of HFCS and regular sugar exert the same effects on the body in terms of satiety, weight gain and insulin function.
  • Similar doses of HFCS and table sugar have similar effects on hunger hormones.
  • HFCS and table sugar can adversely affect health when consumed in excess.

In other words, based on current ‘evidence’, HFCS appears to be no worse than table sugar.


But I had a look at all the research claiming that HFCS is similar to table sugar. And guess what? In all the studies, the authors were ‘consultants to the food and beverage industry in nutritive sweeteners, including HFCS and sucrose’ or presently associated with the Corn Refiners Association, ConAgra Foods, PepsiCo International and Kraft Foods. Some of the research was supported by grants from the Corn Refiners Association. Need I say more about the quality of the study results?

Besides would you add about 11 teaspoons of sugar to any drink? I sure hope not but that’s how much sugar (HFCS) is present in a 16oz bottle of soda…

Check out this video for a brief overview of the dangers of HFCS.

high fructose corn syrup in candy bars

Fact # 4: HFCS does cause weight gain.

Princeton University scientists reported that HFCS causes more weight gain compared to refined sugar. The lab study showed that rats fed HFCS not only gained 48% more weight than those on a normal diet but they also experienced increased levels of triglycerides and abdominal fat. However, the methodology of this study has been criticized by scientists sponsored by the food industry (which would have a lot to lose if HFCS becomes known as an ingredient causing weight gain). The truth is that the study was designed to show the long-term effects of HFCS which, according to scientist Miriam Bocarsly, is important ‘because you don’t eat high fructose corn syrup once; you eat it every day, probably since you were a child.

HFCS weight gain

Fact # 5: Excess fructose intake has been linked to various adverse health effects.

The glucose we consume triggers the release of insulin such that about 80% of the glucose will be utilized by our organs and cells whereas the liver will metabolize the remaining 20% and store it as energy (glycogen) for later use. That’s a normal process. On the other hand, the fructose we consume goes straight to the liver which is the only organ that can process this sugar and does not trigger insulin release. (You’ll see why this is an issue in a moment.)

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