What the Fruc?
The good, bad, and indifferent of high fructose corn syrup
Published: September 29, 2010
I care about food. A lot. I mean, I’m a chef—it’s my friggin’ life, man! So when the periodic hammer of bad news about Thing X we Americans are consuming too much of comes down from, I dunno, Dietary Science Headquarters, I pay attention. But I’m at a point where I can’t even get a little worked up anymore, no matter how dire the new findings, or whatever, may be. I’m numb from abuse, really. So I have yet to pick up a torch and join the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) hate mob.
For one thing, too many dietary “truths” turn out to be simply wrong. Remember when eggs were bad for you? Now they’re super good for you. You know how spinach is so rich in iron that an iconic cartoon franchise was based upon its fortifying abilities? Uh, yeah, not so much—decimal point error. Grassfed beef is better than feedlot beef in terms of greenhouse gas emissions? Negatory, according to an Australian study published earlier this year. Then there’s the whole carb thing, with “carb loading” in the 1980s, carbs demonized in the ’90s, and carbs now OK again, especially when “whole grain.”
Often contradictory information about food is swirling around us all the time, and it’s difficult to nail down what’s legit and what’s bunk. This is particularly an issue since many of the studies that the “latest findings” are based on may be funded by someone, or more specifically some industry, that stands to benefit from a certain result. Prime example: bisphenol A. In 2008, the FDA declared it safe to leech into food and beverages based on—what else?—chemical-industry-funded studies. To be fair, the jury’s still out on that one, but it’s not looking too good.
HFCS is made from corn, of course, but goes through enzymatic and other chemical processes in order to achieve high fructose content, fructose being sweeter than glucose (the other major simple sugar in the syrup). Regular corn syrup has fructose, too, just not as much of it, and incidentally also requires chemical processing to produce. HFCS has been a popular industrial sweetener here in the United States since the ’70s and ’80s, and for a very good reason—it’s cheap. And that’s because corn is cheap here, due primarily to government subsidies on the crop. Import tariffs make sugar expensive, so for a big corporation like, say, Coca-Cola, it’s a no-brainer.
Recent uproar has been fueled by claims that HFCS somehow contributes to obesity more than other sweeteners. A skeptic like myself would note that while the HFCS used to sweeten Coke is 55 percent fructose, the sugar in orange juice (which, according to Alissa Hamilton’s 2009 book Squeezed, is pretty much liquid horror and wrongness) is 50 percent fructose. Thus while 12 ounces of Coke contain 21.5 grams of fructose, the same amount of OJ contains 18 grams. A significant difference, yes, but enough to pin an epidemic on? For comparison, agave nectar, maybe the current trendy sweetener champ, is a whopping 70-80 percent fructose. Fructose differs from other simple sugars in the way it’s processed by the body: It is much more readily converted to stored energy, aka fat, than, say, glucose, which gets assigned to immediate energy demands. So up ‘til now, I had chalked up any ill health effects of sugary beverages to the simple fact that we are consuming too much sugar, regardless of specific type.
Indeed, I’ve had college student friends tell me that their biology professors have expressed similar sentiments, stating flat out that HFCS is just like any other sweetener as far as how the body deals with it. Still, the bad publicity was enough to prompt the corn industry earlier this month to petition the FDA to allow a name change from high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar,” which, and maybe it’s just me, kind of sounds like a fetish porno mag. For what it’s worth, the name was already taken.
But then a few months ago, Princeton University published a study with the kind of information that does tend to freak me out a bit. Normally, glucose and fructose molecules are bound together in a way that requires an extra step to metabolize. Apparently, the way that HFCS is processed leaves fructose molecules unbound, which is an express ticket to Fattytown. To sum up the results, all test subjects (mice) responded to HFCS by becoming not just fat, but obese. Pretty compelling stuff, but again this is just one study, and limiting sugar intake across the board is good enough for me. Also, I want to see if and how much the sugar industry donated to Princeton this year. So sad to be this jaded.
I was, curious, however if, as some people claim, HFCS is an inferior sweetener on the grounds of flavor. Totally aside from the reputed ill health effects of HFCS, I’ve been a fan of Mexican Coca-Cola, which is sweetened with sugar, for a few years now. If you’re lucky you can find a case of the retro glass bottles at Costco, which occasionally stocks them. Otherwise you can get Mexican Coke at many Latin restaurants or corner stores around Baltimore. It’s more expensive—about double the price of regular U.S. Coke—but I like the sugar-sweetened version. I think I can detect a bit more of the essential-oil flavors, and it seems a bit less acidic than U.S. Coke. But is it worth the price and extra energy spent trucking it across the border?
A totally unscientific poll I conducted produced results that were, perhaps not surprisingly, all over the place. About a third of tasters preferred the sugar-sweetened Coke, some saying it was less sweet, some saying it was more sweet, and many saying it was less “syrupy.” Another third preferred HFCS-sweetened Coke, stating that the sugar Coke tasted “wrong” or “off,” which makes sense since the U.S. model is what most of us know as “Coke.” The last third either couldn’t tell the difference, or didn’t have a preference.
Personally I’m not sure that sugar-sweetened Coke is better than HFCS-sweetened Coke per se—just a tiny bit different. And I’ll admit that when it’s hot out and I’m utterly parched, the Coke I crave is an ice-packed fountain Coke from McDonald’s, beads of condensation running down the cup, damn the unruly fructose molecules.
More by Henry Hong at foodnerd.org