All About High Fructose Corn Syrup

April 30, 2010

Consumer concerns about sweeteners and their relationship to weight gain have grown over the years.

Consumer concerns about sweeteners and their relationship to weight gain have grown over the years. As a result, many food companies, like Kraft, ConAgra and PepsiCo, are making moves to replace High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a less expensive sugar alternative, with cane sugar, claiming that tests are showing that's what consumers prefer. A recent Lempert Report study, for example, found that among the sugar options available today, 81% of consumers are most concerned about HFCS. But are these concerns warranted?

HFCS was developed in the 1970s when the food industry began looking for alternatives to traditional cane sugar that could provide similar sweetness, taste and quality for a fraction of the price. All forms of HFCS come from corn starch, and are mixtures of the natural glucose and fructose that exist in the starch itself. No artificial ingredients are used in the manufacturing process. The resulting HFCS product is extremely similar to table sugar (sucrose) and has a similar taste.

HFCS is now used in a wide variety of products, ranging from baked goods, yogurts and packaged food to jams, condiments and beverages. In addition to providing sweetness, HFCS acts to preserve and protect food from water activity, improves texture and reduces freezer burn. It imparts browning to breads, cakes and cookies and provides a soft, moist texture in the production of items like snack bars. And liquid HFCS blends easily with other ingredients.

Tests have shown that the body converts HFCS, table sugar and honey into nutrients in a very similar way. HFCS and table sugar also contain the same number of calories (4 per gram or 16 per teaspoon). In fact, the FDA’s approval of the substance is based in part on these substantial similarities.

“The HFCS used in most foods and beverages is similar to regular table sugar in terms of sweetness, calorie content, and composition. A concern with both HFCS and sugar occurs if an overall diet is too high in calories for a healthy body weight, is not nutritionally balanced, and is relatively too high in sweet foods and beverages. Then the intake of sweet foods and beverages needs to be moderated to get overall calories and dietary quality in balance,” says Fran Seligson, PhD, RD, a nutrition consultant who specializes in sugars. 

The USDA estimates that Americans today consume equal amounts of both sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and yet, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), some consumers have not even heard of HFCS and require education about it. Still, the majority (68%, per the Lempert Report study) of consumers are taking action to reduce their sugar intake. Both HFSC and sugar intake peaked in 2002 at a combined total of 89.9 pounds per capita. Levels dropped down to 84.3 pounds per capita consumption in 2007.

When consumed in moderation and as part of an overall diet that meets government recommendations, the American Dietetic Association advises that nutritive sweeteners can be safely enjoyed. As more people become aware of HFCS, says IFIC, it will be important to provide the facts to offset any possible confusion or misunderstanding about what they are, why they are used, and their effects on health.

“Consumers need to be aware that some added sugars in no/low fat dairy products and products made with whole grain help to enhance palatability and thus consumption. Retailers should help consumers focus on foods and beverages that are the major contributors of added sugars in general and not fixate on those that contain sucrose versus HFCS. Along these lines, common sense indicates that consumers should moderate their intakes of sweetened beverages, desserts, and sweets,” adds Seligson. “The only real connection between diet and weight gain and obesity is consuming more calories from any source than the amount burned by the body in daily living.”