High-fructose corn syrup… what on earth could that be? It sounds harmless enough. Fructose is a sweetener—a simple sugar that naturally occurs in many fruits and vegetables. Corn is a vegetable that grows in the neighbors’ garden and tastes delicious with butter. So what could be so bad about something like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)?
Plenty, if you ask many health fanatics. HFCS has a terrible reputation among health writers and healthy eaters. It has been revealed to be a chemically altered form of corn sugar that tastes extra sweet. Real and natural sugar (like “evaporated cane juice”) is all the rage at many grocery and health food stores. People will pay half again as much for a “no high-fructose corn syrup” label on their sugary foods.
Genetically Modified… and It’s Cheap!
With the U.S. agriculture subsidy system pumping limitless cheap genetically modified corn into our food system, corn syrup is now the cheapest sweetener on the market. Most juice brands and nearly all soda brands in the United States now make their drinks with high-fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar—and use lots of it. Pepsi, Coke, and the brands they own (Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Mug, Sierra Mist, Lipton, Brisk, SoBe, AMP, Gatorade, Powerade, Hi-C, Sprite, etc.) tend to sweeten exclusively with HFCS.
A backlash against the artificial sweetener HFCS has become all the rage in recent years. Major and local brands alike have marketed “all-natural” and “corn-syrup free” products alongside their chemically engineered cousins from the mainstream. In addition to soda, you can also find naturally-sweetened juices and teas in many grocery stores. Honest Tea and Honest Ade, for example, use cane sugar and fruit juice to sweeten their lines of teas and juices—all for a significantly higher price.
A Risk for Kidney Disease
So, we know that corn syrup-free drinks are available, but is it worth the extra money to avoid corn syrup? Well, the health craze has some scientific support. A recent study from Loyola University found a link between drinking two sodas a day and a high risk for contracting kidney disease. The study stopped short of blaming it all on HFCS, however, saying that more studies would have to be done to find whether this is the fault of HFCS, overall sugar intake, or other factors.
In truth, HFCS, which has about the same chemical composition as honey, isn’t necessarily what’s causing all of our sugar-related problems. In a recent interview with The Cleveland Pain Dealer renowned food politics writer Michael Pollan stepped back his previous statements against HFCS, saying instead “there is a problem with how much total sugar we consume.”
The real issue with HFCS, it seems, isn’t so much that this kind of sugar is so bad for you, but that now that it has become cheap and practically limitless, it can easily be slipped into everything you eat. Huffington Post has a fascinating list of items sweetened with corn syrup and its twisted chemically engineered cousin HFCS, including everything from bread to cereal to Kraft Easy Mac.
Corporate Greed and “Natural” Products
Greed is really at the heart of the corn syrup controversy. Food companies have engineered a cheap sweetener with nearly infinite supply, and now are engineering a backlash to sell even more sugary treats under the name ‘natural.’ “They started giving products made of real sugar health claims and [are] trying to make sugar look good,” says Pollan.
The take-home? Replacing the HFCS in your diet with real sugar and other natural sweeteners could help you avoid the lows of extreme sugar addiction (and the resulting diabetes) and potentially lower your risk for kidney disease. Overall, however, eating less food with simple sugars, whether natural or artificial, is the most important thing.
U.S. Sugar (including HFCS) Consumption Trends:
- A U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows U.S. consumption of sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup) added to food increased 23% from 1985 to 1999.
- An article in Iowa State University’s Ag Review shows that U.S. per person consumption of sugars (including high-fructose corn syrup) increased 33% from 1960 to 2000.
Genetically Modified Corn:
- According to consumer group the Center for Food Safety, currently about 85% of U.S. corn is genetically engineered. Note that some countries have blocked import of genetically modified U.S. grown corn.