High Fructose Corn Syrup is added to many processed foods and drinks that you may currently be consuming. But what is it really, and is it good for you?
HFCS is a liquid sweetener first marketed over 50 years ago and is often compared to sugar. HFCS has many manufacturing advantages over sugar - it is more cost effective, and being a liquid, it is easy to store and mix into products. There are many different varieties of HFCS based on the fructose content of the product, such as HFCS 42 has 42% fructose (if wate was removed) and is commonly added to processed cakes, biscuits, cereals and baked goods, whereas HFCS 55 (i.e. 55% fructose if water was removed) is in many soft drinks (1).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared HFCS to be a safe ingredient in food manufacturing (2), but the nutritional quality of the product is questionable. There is a fairly lengthy extraction and enzymatic process to make HFCS, and there is still controversy around its safety and the marketing of the product as ‘natural’. The FDA states that they are not aware of any evidence that there is a difference in the safety between foods containing HFCS compared to sucrose, honey or other traditional sweeteners (2).
Sugar is 99.9% sucrose, and therefore in 100 g of sugar you obtain 100 g carbohydrate with a small amount of trace elements. Sugar is made by crystallizing sugar cane or sugar beets juice. It is made up of two simple carbohydrate molecules glucose and fructose (joined together to form sucrose). When you ingest sucrose the chemical bond between the glucose and fructose molecules is broken down and they are released. HFCS contains water (hence why it is a liquid), and there is no bond between the glucose and fructose molecules. HFCS has 76% carbohydrate and 24% water with some trace elements, but no essential nutrients.
HFCS is a sweetener which is stable in acidic foods and beverages, not dissimilar to honey, invert sugar or sugar. Most countries use sucrose in the manufacture of soft drinks, however in the US they typically use HFCS. Some people claim they can taste a difference, however most sweeteners contain a fairly even proportion of glucose to fructose, hence a similar taste.
There is a lot of conflicting research on whether HFCS is a major contributor to the obesity crisis (1, 3-6). Other factors, such as the lack of physical activity and the total increase in calories need to also be considered. However it is known that there is a link between sugar-sweetened beverages consumption and an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (3). It is hard to blame one food ingredient for a global problem, however dietary advice to limit consumption of all added caloric sweeteners is definitely warranted. HFCS may also be an issue for people with irritable bowel syndrome, as a high fructose food it falls under the FODMAP umbrella, and thus may need to be restricted in a low FODMAP diet.
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