The sweet lowdown

What do Pop Tarts, Hot Pockets and Coke all have in common? Aside from being staples in the average college student’s diet, they’re all packed with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The inexpensive sweetener was introduced in the 1970s as a substitute for refined sugar and has since been the subject of intense scrutiny. Countless studies, exposes and homegrown Web sites have attempted to give consumers the lowdown on the sweet stuff, linking increased American consumption of it to the rise in obesity, Type 2 diabetes and a number of other health risks.

Despite all the inquiry, the Corn Refiners’ Association (CRA) and countless manufacturers that use the product maintain it’s no more harmful than ordinary table sugar.

The research done by those sour on the sweetener “gives the impression that high-fructose corn syrup is the secret reason Americans are all obese, and that is patently false,” said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) in a USA Today article.

Childs’ logic seems well founded: Obesity is on the rise around the world, yet HFCS is rarely used outside of America. Nevertheless, concerns persist.

“Because fructose in isolation doesn’t activate the hormones that regulate body weight, as do other types of carbohydrate composed of glucose, consuming a diet high in fructose could lead to taking in more calories and, over time, to weight gain,” said Peter Havel, a nutrition researcher at the University of California Davis, in a San Francisco Gate article.

Other detractors claim HFCS is unnatural, an assertion the federal government doesn’t make any clearer.

In his book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, journalist Greg Critser contends that no food industry group, such as the CRA or GMA, “has yet refuted the growing scientific concern that, when all is said and done, (HFCS) is about the furthest thing from natural that one can imagine, let alone eat.”

According to, a Web site set up by the CRA, “HFCS is made from corn – and many of the processes used to manufacture HFCS are used in the production of other foods and ingredients that are commonly considered natural. Although the FDA has not established a formal definition of ‘natural’ for food ingredients, it is accepted that products derived from natural materials which are obtained by minimal processing are considered natural.”

The jury is still out on whether HFCS presents a danger to health given its prevalence in everyday foods, though mothers throughout the ages have warned children not to eat too much sugar. Whatever the effects of HFCS, moderation is, as always, key. HFCS may not kill you, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you;and it may not be good for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you.

See addtional information on page 7.

Uses of High-Fructose Corn Syrup


HFCS provides sweetness intensity equivalent to sugar. HFCS can replace sugar in one-to-one proportions.

Flavor Enhancement

The sweetness profile of HFCS enhances many fruit, citrus and spice flavors in beverages, bakery fillings and dairy products.


HFCS promotes freshness in several ways: It actually inhibits microbial spoilage by reducing water activity and extends shelf life through moisture control. Foods also taste fresher because HFCS protects the firm texture of canned fruits and reduces freezer burn in frozen fruits.

Soft Texture

Chewy cookies, snack bars and other baked goods derive their soft and moist texture from HFCS, which retains moisture and resists crystallization after baking.


Over time, HFCS-sweetened products maintain sweetness and flavor with no change in quality due to storage temperature fluctuations or low product acidity. With HFCS, product stability maintains the quality of carbonated and still beverages, as well as condiments such as ketchup and fruit preserves.


About 96 percent of the sugars in HFCS are fermentable. This is important in bread baking because HFCS is more economical to use than sucrose. An often overlooked benefit of HFCS is that yeast “prefers” glucose and ferments it first, and as a result, the slight sweetness that consumers prize is accentuated.

What is the difference between HFCS and table sugar?

From the perspective of the human body, there is very little difference between table sugar (sucrose) and HFCS. Sucrose and HFCS have the same caloric density as most carbohydrates; both contribute 4 calories per gram. In terms of chemical structure, sucrose and HFCS differ by the bonding of their sugars. Once absorbed by the digestive system, however, the sources of fructose and glucose – whether from sucrose, HFCS, honey or a host of other carbohydrate ingredients – are indistinguishable to the human body. Sucrose and HFCS contain nearly the same one-to-one ratio of two sugars – fructose and glucose: Sucrose is half fructose and half glucose.

How is HFCS made?

The corn wet milling industry makes HFCS from corn starch using a series of unit processes that include steeping corn to soften the hard kernel; physical separation of the kernel into its separate components – starch, corn hull, protein and oil; breakdown of the starch to glucose; use of enzymes to invert glucose to fructose; removal of impurities; and blending of glucose and fructose to make HFCS-42 and HFCS-55.