Exploring Human Potential

Is High Fructose Corn Syrup The Next Trans-Fat?

Mike Magee

In the world of Mad Men consumer advertising, first you name it, then you sell it.(1) OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. In naming a consumer product, you consider what that product might mean to the consumer and study what types of terms resonate. And when the product is launched, and gathers ahead of steam, you protect the name which has now become a brand. But what would happen if the consuming public had a way of verifying your claims, of talking to each other, of doing their own research? Welcome to the Internet and today’s real world. (2)

In our present day consumer world, if a name or brand gets overtaken by the facts, you change the name. Witness Philip Morris morphing seamlessly into Altria or prunes make-over as “dried plums”. (3,4) The latest example of this phenomenom is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which the Corn Refiners Association says has gotten a bum wrap. They’re asking the FDA to bless a new label they consider more accurate – “corn sugar”. (5) Turns out that HFCS is at the center of America’s food revolution and is losing the battle, and in the middle of the skirmish is mass confusion around the meaning of one word – sugar. (6)

Sugar is not a chemical term. It’s a common word which describes a group of sweet flavored carbohydrates. Glucose, a simple sugar that provides energy for human cells and is central to plant photosynthesis, derives its name from the Greek word gleukos ((γλυκύς) meaning sweet. (7) Another sugar with a long history in this country is sucrose, or table sugar,  which comes from sugar beets and sugar cane. About 150 million tonnes of this molecule are produced worldwide each year.(8)  A third sugar, fructose, derived from fruits and honey, is a component of sucrose.




Is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) fructose. Not really. As it’s names suggests, it’s not a crystal but rather a man made liquid. First produced on large scale in Japan in the late 1960’s, it begins with corn which is crushed and ground into a corn starch which is then liquified. The resultant mix is almost entirely glucose. Enzymes are added which convert most of the glucose to fructose. The syrup produced is now 90% fructose and labelled HFCS 90. This is diluted with pure glucose corn syrup to create two very common mixes. HFCS 55 is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, and used mostly in soft drinks. HFCS 42 is 42% fructose and 58% glucose and primarily used in processed foods including breads, cereals, lunch meats, yogurt, and condiments. (9,10)

Shortly after the introduction of HFCS, manufacturers in the US turned their back on sucrose or table sugar as a primary sweetener for their products. Why? Cost and convenience. The price of sucrose in the US was roughly twice that of other countries as a result of quotas and tariffs imposed in 1977 that protected US producers. Combine this with the fact that corn production in the US has been heavily subsidized leading to cheap corn byproducts like HFCS, and that HFCS is a liquid product more easily transported then crystalline sucrose, and the stage was set for a rapid market shift.

In the U.S. It began in earnest in 1984 when Pepsi and Coca-Cola made the shift. Food processors quickly followed suit. Prices for HFCS remained low thanks to continued subsidies fueled by heavy lobbying from big corn producers like Archer-Daniels-Midland. These subsidies not only helped them with HFCS sales but also with corn based ethanol which got a double positive hit since sugar cane tariffs kept the price of South American sugar cane based ethanol artificially high. (11)

The net effect was a rapid decline in the use of sucrose as a sweetener, which accounted for only 3.7% of the caloric sweetener in US beverages by 2005. (12) But then the childhood obesity epidemic hit the US in earnest. Authors like Michael Pollan(13)  challenged the American corn based diet (“we’re eating corn and washing it down with more corn.”) and films like “Super-Size Me” catalogued the emergence of heavily marketed huge food and beverage portions made economically feasible by the HFCS/sucrose price differential.(14)

Over the past 5 years the consumer marketplace has responded. While the use of HFCS likely has had a role in over consumption of artificially cheap foods and beverages, HFCS has not been demonstrated to have a direct harmful effect compared to sucrose.(9) Yet it is currently the poster child for “the American diet” and not in a good way.(6)  And increasingly Americans are avoiding products with HFCS on the nutritional label. Fair? Maybe not says NYU Professor of Nutrition Marion Nestle. “I’m not eager to help corn refiners sell more of their stuff. But you have to feel sorry for them. High fructose corn syrup is the new trans fat. Everyone thinks it’s poison, and food companies are getting rid of it as fast as they can.” (15) You won’t find it any longer in Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, Wheat Thins, or Hunt’s Ketchup. Over the past decade per-capita consumption of caloric sweeteners has dropped 12%. But if you break that down, sucrose dropped only 3% while HFCS use dropped 20%.(12)

Will the FDA allow HFCS to morph into “corn sugar”. Who knows. It’s been done before. Low erucic acid rapeseed oil became “canola oil” with their blessing.(15,16)  But changing the name won’t fix the problem. The problem is a series of perverse incentives that promote over consumption and poor health – not unlike our current health care system.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Mad Men Official Site.
2. The Nutrition Source. Harvard School of Public Health.
3. Philip Morris Has Not Changed. Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids.
4.California Dried Plums.
5.Corn Refiners Association Petitions FDA.
6. The Ban On High Fructose Corn Syrup: Jamie Oliver Food Revolution.
7. Merriam Webster Dictionary Online.
8. Ulmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry.
9. The Health Effects of High Fructose Syrup, Report 3 of The Council on Science and Public Health (A-08)
10. Hanover LM, White JS. 1993. Manufacturing, composition, and applications of fructose. Am J Clin Nutr 58(suppl 5):724S-732S.)
11. Pollan M. Omnivore’s Dilemma.
12. Kilman S. Corn Sweetener Desires A More Palatable Name. WSJ. Sept. 15, 2010. B6.
13. Pollan, M, The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions Of Obesity, The New York Times‘, 12 October 2003.
14. Super Size Me.
15. Parker-Pope T. Makers Seek New Name For A Syrup. NYT. B1. September 15, 2010
16. Low Erucic Acid Capeseed Oil. Health Canada.

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