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The High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) Debate

Are you confused about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – What it is and is it really bad for you? With the recent ad campaign by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), many consumers are trying to separate truth from fiction. Two of the television commercials make claims that HFCS is "made from corn, doesn’t have artificial ingredients, has the same calories as sugar and honey, and like sugar, is fine in moderation". There are some elements of truth to these claims. BUT, as presented, the information is misleading and lures consumers to think that there is nothing wrong with HFCS. This supports the consumption of processed foods (containing HFCS), which is strongly linked to the increasing rates of diabetes and obesity in America.

Starting with the basics... Table sugar, the common white stuff, is derived from sugarcane and sugar beets. It is sucrose, which is comprised of equal parts of glucose and fructose (50% each). Many people assume that HFCS is mostly fructose – the sugar naturally found in fruits, vegetables, and honey. This is actually NOT the case. The two types of HFCS are 42-HFCS and 55-HFCS. Basically, both varieties are almost half glucose and half fructose, like table sugar. However, the glucose and fructose in table sugar are chemically bonded but once digested, are broken apart. In HFCS, the glucose and fructose are not bonded and can be thought of as "free sugars". Biochemically, your body cannot tell the difference, and this is why many 'experts' consider table sugar and HFCS to be nutritionally equal and how they each have the same number of calories. But that doesn't mean HFCS is the same thing as table sugar.

Although it is initially made from corn, HFCS is NOT a naturally occurring substance. It is produced by a processing procedure that breaks cornstarch down into glucose. Then some of that is converted into fructose. A synthetic fixing agent fixes the enzymes that are then packed into a column, and the sugar slurry is passed over that column to make the HCFS. Since the synthetic fixing agent does not actually come into contact with the final product, it is not considered to be included or added. The descriptor of HFCS as "natural" basically depends on whose definition you are using. On July 8, 2008 the FDA made a statement in a letter that "high-fructose corn syrup may be labeled natural when synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing". It is this definition that allows the CRA to make the claim that HFCS is "natural" and thus does not have artificial ingredients.

HFCS is in most of the processed foods that Americans consume. It is a known fact that rates of diabetes and obesity continue to rise at an alarming rate, and current research has clearly established a link between processed foods and increased risks for these diseases. As an example, data from the Harvard University Nurses' Health Study correlates the consumption of sweetened drinks with raising the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in women. While it is prudent to advocate moderate consumption of HFCS-containing foods and drinks, the CRA does not provide specific guidelines for using in moderation.

In the end, to say HFCS is no different than other natural, artificial, or chemical sweeteners will continue to be debated so long as the FDA's 'definition' remains the same. HFCS is not a whole food like corn, is produced using artificial ingredients, has a different chemical arrangement than table sugar, and has no specific guidelines around moderate use. The CRA's campaign to paint a more positive picture of HFCS essentially encourages the typical American diet – one that is overloaded with processed foods. This is one of the major factors contributing to the diabetes and obesity epidemic. The sheer number of products on our supermarket shelves that contain HFCS makes it almost inevitable. So, please: read labels. Be an informed consumer. And if you decide for yourself and for your family that you’d rather not include HFCS as part of your diet, choose to purchase foods and beverages that do not contain it. Your body (and your family) will thank you for it!