HFCS: A Sweet Surprise indeed

September 14, 2008 § 12 Comments

Has anyone else seen the commercials circulating lately promoting High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Each commercial basically has the same script. Person one is offering a beverage or food item which contains HFCS, and person two makes a dubious comment as to person one’s character for even offering such poison. To which person one innocently inquires what that person could possibly mean. The ensuing conversation goes thusly:

P2: Well, you know what they say…
P1: What? That High fructose corn syrup is made from corn? That it has the same calories as sugar or honey, and that it’s fine in moderation?

The two look at each other as P2 squirms uncomfortably. Then P2 either accepts the offered substance or changes the subject abruptly.

And scene.

The end of the commercial directs folks to “get the facts” at the website Sweet Surprise, a lovely bit of propaganda from the corn growers lobby, apparently.

Here’s some facts, and why these commercials burn me up so much. First of all, they make the consumer seem completely uninformed, as if people are avoiding HFCS for unknown and stupid reasons. Like sheep, all folks who have opted not to put a chemically created sweetener in their bodies are only doing so because of some vague unsubstantiated fear, and are incapable of independent thought or research to know why they don’t want to do that.

Let’s look at the “facts” that this commercial claims to be espousing.

1. “HFCS is made from corn.”

Indeed, many marvelous and wonderful things are made from corn these day– most of which I would not put in my mouth. Products such as plastics and ethanol are made from the same source as HFCS but that does not make them food. HFCS is made through a chemical process.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is produced by processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose. It all sounds rather simple–white cornstarch is turned into crystal clear syrup. However, the process is actually very complicated. Three different enzymes are needed to break down cornstarch, which is composed of chains of glucose molecules of almost infinite length, into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.

First, cornstarch is treated with alpha-amylase to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Alpha-amylase is industrially produced by a bacterium, usually Bacillus sp. It is purified and then shipped to HFCS manufacturers.

Next, an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose. Unlike alpha-amylase, glucoamylase is produced by Aspergillus, a fungus, in a fermentation vat where one would likely see little balls of Aspergillus floating on the top.

The third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, is very expensive. It converts glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in. While alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are added directly to the slurry, pricey glucose-isomerase is packed into columns and the sugar mixture is then passed over it. Inexpensive alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are used only once, glucose-isomerase is reused until it loses most of its activity.

There are two more steps involved. First is a liquid chromatography step that takes the mixture to 90 percent fructose. Finally, this is back-blended with the original mixture to yield a final concentration of about 55 percent fructose–what the industry calls high fructose corn syrup.

The Murky World of High-Fructose Corn Syrup By Linda Joyce Forristal, CCP, MTA

This creates a new substance that would not occur naturally were we to leave the corn in its unaltered state, simply cook it, or allow it to ferment naturally.

2. HFCS has the same calories as sugar or honey. The website goes on to say they have the same nutritional value.

Our society has been duped into believing that caloric content is the be all and end all of how our body processes food. That’s like saying “My car runs on energy. So it doesn’t matter what I put in it for fuel.” Our bodies, like our cars, are built to process only certain substances for energy, and will break down if we put the wrong fuels in it. This planet has a grand way of producing those substances (with very little intervention from us) that are perfect fuel sources for our bodies. When we start to tamper with those things that spring up from the soil (or those things that eat that which springs up) we alter the fuel and usually make it not such a good fuel source at all. Chemically altered foods, genetically modified foods and highly processed foods are NOT the same as naturally occurring foods, and our bodies recognize that.

All processed sugars are bad for you. But substances like raw cane, maple sugar, and honey have been prized for thousands of years for their nutritive properties, and considered an important food source. (See Basic Nutrition and Replacing Refined Sugars with Natural Sugars One Step At a Time By Lori Lipinski.) The processing those substances goes through from field to table makes them practically unrecognizable, nutritiously speaking.

But even more than that, HFCS is not processed by the body in the same way honey and sugar are. It bypasses the normal digestive process, going straight for the liver. More info can be found in this article, here.

The argument that “they are the same” does not consider that they are comparing themselves to (assumed) processed sugars, and it ignores how our bodies process each of those substances differently.

The third point of our fictional know-it-all is:

3. HFCS is fine in moderation.

Many things are fine in moderation. Head injuries. Arsenic… Discovering what is moderation for a substance is key, though. And I’m willing to bet moderation for HFCS is very very very small amounts. But we do not consume “small amounts” of HFCS because it is in virtually everything. The Sweet Surprise website extols the virtues of HFCS, claiming “High fructose corn syrup offers numerous benefits. It keeps food fresh, enhances fruit and spice flavors, retains moisture in bran cereals, helps keep breakfast and energy bars moist, maintains consistent flavors in beverages and keeps ingredients evenly dispersed in condiments.”

Indeed. Basically, it is used for all of those properties in ALL of those substances– and more. Try looking at the ingredients for all of your canned, bottled, frozen or dry goods and see how often high fructose corn syrup occurs. Now try having it in moderation!

I am thoroughly irritated with this blatant attempt to promote an item which has no true benefit at all, and all the indications of being harmful. The website further claims that since the government recognizes it as safe, we should all sleep well in our beds. The government also used to put formaldehyde in milk to “make it safe.” I’m not paranoid, thinking that the government is trying to kill us– I’ll leave that to the conspiracy theorists out there. But I do not think they have a very good track record of deciding what is good for you and me. Common sense, and real, honest facts, should rule our decision making as consumers (and producers.) What makes us think we can make something better by tampering with it? It came out of the ground fine. Rinse off the dirt and eat it. If it didn’t come straight from the earth, but had to go through a factory first, proceed with extreme caution.

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§ 12 Responses to HFCS: A Sweet Surprise indeed

  • ashenfox says:

    How bizarre, considering the saturation of this product in food processing, that someone felt the need to “educate” the general public about it. Could it be they sense people are finally starting to cut back on their consumption…or, worse, that like you people at large are starting to realize its not-so-nice aspects?

  • lijuun says:

    Also, if the government weren’t so attached to their stupid “sugar quotas”, limiting the amount of sugar imported and therefore raising the price of it, domestic companies would be able to use sugar instead of HFCS. And everything would taste that much better. And also be healthier.
    It’s one reason why you can travel to another country, eat something you’re familiar with back home, and find it so much inexplicably yummier.
    Thanks for writing this!

  • kengara says:

    Haha yeah I saw those commercials XD Ridiculous!
    About that commercial you linked to, as my wife commented, it’s funny that the implication is if not for the HFCS, artificially-colored and -flavored sugar water would be good for children XD

  • bojojoti says:

    Thank you for this post. Our family gave up HFCS some time ago, but it is an insidious additive, lurking in the most innocent of foods. I’m sure we still ingest too much of the stuff in just eating out.
    I hate propaganda campaigns that try to tout the good in bad things. I hope their campaign boomerangs on them and brings more attention to HFCS and people get the facts to make informed decisions.
    The more a food is processed, the less healthy it is, and the more potentially dangerous it becomes to the human body.

  • Well, everything’s natural, if indirectly
    You point out the obvious – that HFCS in moderation is fine, but so is arsenic, really. And quite frankly, everything is natural. Even plastic – it’s a byproduct of petroleum distillation. So HFCS comes from corn. So does fuel ethanol. You gonna drink that?
    So they also point out that HFCS makes a good stabilizer. Fine. So does lecithin, though I suspect that the texture would be wrong. And me, I have no issues with shaking a bottle of ketchup occasionally to de-separate it.
    So perhaps one of these days we’ll find something that doesn’t require Beano (which itself is derived from aspergillus niger) to concoct. Until then, we gotta look for stuff without HFCS.

  • DT says:

    Re: Well, everything’s natural, if indirectly
    You mention lecithin and that reminds me; I’ll be giving my rant on soy any day now…

  • DT says:

    I hope the campaign boomerangs as well. The day after I saw the first commercial, there was an outcry on my Crunchy Mamas forum! lol. I’ve been stewing over this for over a week, and this morning I woke up with this post in my head and realized there was no way I was getting back to sleep if I did not purge. lol

  • DT says:

    I know! My mom and I were talking about it last night, and my mom joked (as if the woman in the commercial), “No, I was talking about the Red Dye #40!!”
    Ridiculous. Ugh.

  • DT says:

    You are welcome! It’s been rolling around in my head ever since I first saw the commercial and it woke me up early this morning. It was time! lol
    I’m so annoyed by the food myths that get perpetuated in our society. I think it has become my latest crusade.

  • DT says:

    I think you may have hit the nail on the head. I think folks are consciously buying less HFCS, and that is why they wanted to make it sound like folks who are avoiding it are misinformed and stupid.

  • kengara says:

    Heh yeah.
    Before I saw the commercials, a guy at my work told me he had seen a commercial about the benefits of HFCS, and I was like, “Benefits? Like what? It’s cheap?” XD

  • kengara says:

    Re: Well, everything’s natural, if indirectly
    I look forward to that.

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