High fructose corn syrup has been a buzz word in modern health and nutrition spheres for years now, but what is it really?

In this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we will take a look at high fructose corn syrup and find out exactly what kind of effect it could have on your health.

What Exactly Is High Fructose Corn Syrup?

According to the FDA, high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS) is derived from corn syrup that has been treated with enzymes to convert some of the glucose (a type of sugar which makes up essentially 100% of corn syrup), into fructose (a sweeter type of sugar most commonly associated with fruits). The process of creating HFCS usually converts between 42%-55% of the glucose into fructose, making it much, much sweeter than standard corn syrup. HFCS is ideal for sweetening processed foods, soft drinks, and other beverages.

This is similar to the chemical composition of sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar, which is made from crystallizing sugar cane or beet juice. The FDA states that the only noteworthy differences between HFCS and sucrose is:

  • HFCS contains water.
  • In sucrose, a chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose. Once eaten, stomach acid and gut enzymes rapidly break down this chemical bond.
  • In HFCS, no chemical bond joins the glucose and fructose.

Is HFCS Safe To Consume?

As far as the FDA oversight committee is concerned, yes. But there may be more to it than that. An article published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2004 draws interesting correlations between the increase of HFCS consumption and the obesity epidemic in the United States.

HFCS now represents more than 40% of caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages and is the sole caloric sweetener in soft drinks in the United States. The author goes on to state that fructose and glucose are not metabolized in the same way, and thus the lack of a chemical bond between the two molecules in HFCS (as opposed to their combined form sucrose) may be more significant than originally thought.

Another article published in Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior in 2010 conducted a study by feeding rats food laced with either sucrose or HFCS. Over the course of the experiment, the rats showed significantly more weight gain when consuming the HFCS than the sucrose, with the weight gain being accompanied by an increase in body fat.

So What Should You Do?

As of now the jury is still out on high fructose corn syrup. There are a lot of conflicting studies, and plenty of studies that are currently being conducted.

What is the best advice? As with all sugars and other calorie dense foods, moderation is the key. Even if HFCS were irrefutably proven to be no better or worse than cane/beet sugar, it still wouldn’t be the best idea to regularly drink soda. If you can find a good balance between the sugary treats and healthy foods, you’re on the right track.