High Fructose Corn Syrup and Health

High Fructose Corn Syrup: In a Supermarket Near You

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a ubiquitous sweetener that is widely used in the food industry, both in the UK, the USA and in other countries around the world.

HFCS, also known as glucose-fructose and isoglucose, is cheap and easy for food manufacturers to handle. As a result it is widely used in a variety of soft drinks, sweets/candies, sauces and baked goods.

 

Processing procedure

HFCS is made from corn, which is finely milled to make corn flour (also known as corn starch in the US). Corn flour has been highly processed to remove most of the plants nutrients, protein and gluten, creating a very fine starch.

The corn starch is then treated with a weak hydrochloric acid solution, to break the starch molecules into sugar. The resulting corn syrup is clarified, refined and evaporated to create a thick syrup.

In order to make the corn syrup sweeter, an acid-enzyme called glucose isomerase is then added to break the carbohydrate molecules into sweeter simple sugars.

Regular table sugar, sucrose, is made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose, the two molecules of which are joined together. In contrast, the final processed HFCS is made up of glucose, fructose and water. The glucose and fructose molecules are not joined together and the fructose concentration varies. The most commonly used form of HFCS is approximately 40% fructose. While human cells need glucose for metabolism, there is no biological need for fructose. Because HFCS is used so commonly in processed food, including in canned soft drinks, the amount of this unnecessary sweetener in the diet has rocketed.

Slide showing the processing procedure for high fructose corn syrup: Reference 1.
Slide showing the processing procedure for high fructose corn syrup: Reference 1.

 

High fructose corn syrup and health

Excessive intake of fructose and HFCS in the diet has been linked to heart disease, diabetes2 and obesity. When ingested in its free form (as in HFCS), fructose is metabolized almost entirely by the liver. While glucose is used for energy, fructose is turned into fat, in a complicated process that also produces uric acid and cell damaging free-radicals. Not only is this bad for the liver, the process also contributes to blood vessel damage and heart disease.

HFCS delivers huge amounts of sugar in the system which contributes directly to obesity and diabetes. Fructose has also been shown not to trigger the feeling of satiety (or fullness), meaning that you continue to eat and drink, further fueling obesity3.

 

Summary

HFCS is an industrial sweetener, produced in factories and far removed from its natural state. It is used excessively in processed food products.  While there is no direct evidence to suggest that HFCS is directly harmful to health and should be banned, high levels of fructose in the diet have been linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

HFCS does not contribute to good health in any way and it should be eaten/drunk strictly in moderation. Natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar, used in moderation are a much healthier way to add sweetness to the diet.

 

References:

  1. http://www.slideshare.net/anshulber/isomerization-and-dextrinization-s
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23181629
  3. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/4/895.full

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