High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made from corn, and is the sweetener used in most conventional supermarket and takeout foods, such as bread, soda, dressings, sauces, frozen meals, desserts, pastries, canned foods, and condiments.
A suspicious-looking parallel between the steep rises in HFCS consumption and obesity rates from 1980 to 2000 led some researchers to link the two phenomena.
FDA declares HFCS unnatural
The Corn Refiners Association and major food manufacturers assert that HFCS is a natural sweetener, even though its chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in the manufacturing process.
While the glucose and fructose in HFCS are identical to naturally occurring glucose and fructose, the U.S. FDA says that because chemical bonds are broken and rearranged in its production, HFCS cannot be called natural.
To make HFCS, starch is extracted from corn and then converted by acids or enzymes to glucose. Then some of the glucose is further converted by enzymes into fructose (Most HFCS is made from genetically modified corn, which predominates in North American corn fields.).
The FDA now deems HFCS an unnatural food substance: Here is how the agency describes the process that, in its eyes, prevents HFCS from being labeled “natural”:
“HFCS is prepared from a high-dextrose-equivalent corn starch hydrolysate by partial enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose using an insoluble glucose isomerase enzyme preparation.”
“…depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of ‘natural' and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a ‘natural' labeling term.”
America lacks a legal definition of natural
According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, “all natural” was the third most frequent claim made on food products launched in the US in 2007 and ranked as the fourth most common claim made for beverages.
And manufacturers try to put it on as many products as possible, because consumers clearly favor foods that say “natural” on the label.
In 2006, Kraft Foods, Inc. removed the term “natural” on Capri Sun beverages, which contain high fructose corn syrup, after the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) threatened a law suit (Cadbury-Schweppes took a similar step following a challenge to the natural claim on their 7-Up soda).
In 2004, a Natural Marketing Institute survey found that 63 percent of US consumers prefer natural foods and beverages, and in 2006, a Harris Interactive survey found that 83 percent of people wanted a government definition of the term.
The FDA's policy regarding the use of the term states that a “natural” product is one that has not had any artificial or synthetic substances added to the product that would not normally be expected to be in the food.
Disqualifying ingredients that preclude use of “natural” on a food label include artificial flavors or color additives.
But the FDA has not otherwise defined or restricted the use of the term “natural” on foods.
The Sugar Association and bakery firm Sara Lee have both petitioned the FDA to define the term “natural” with regard to ingredients like HFCS, which start out as natural products but undergo substantial modification of their molecular structures.
The agency has not responded to these petitions and says it has no plans to define the term in the near future.
“Fattening” charge sticks to corn syrup… and cane sugar
While fructose is metabolized differently from glucose—in ways that could promote diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity—HFCS and cane sugar (sucrose) contain comparable proportions of fructose and glucose.
Cane sugar (sucrose) is composed of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, while the glucose/fructose ratio in most HFCS ranges from 45/55 (beverages) to 58/42 (baked/frozen/canned goods).
In 2007, researchers at Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) published their review of diet and health-exam data from 38,409 Americans participating in the U.S. government's periodic NHANES survey.
The ADM team reported that the participants who frequently consumed sugar-sweetened beverages—which, in America, means primarily HFCS sweetened beverages—were no more likely to become obese when compared with peers who consume sugared beverages infrequently (Sun SZ, Empie MW 2007).
But in 2006, Harvard researchers came to a different conclusion after reviewing other research:
“Findings… [from epidemiological studies] show a positive association between greater intakes of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain and obesity in both children and adults. Findings from short-term [clinical] feeding trials in adults also support an induction of… weight gain by intake of sugar-sweetened sodas...”
And when researchers in the famed Framingham Heart Study reviewed the records of 6,039 participants, they found a clear correlation between soda drinking and bodily changes that lead to diabetes and obesity:
“In middle-aged adults, soft drink consumption is associated with a higher prevalence and incidence of multiple metabolic risk factors” (Dhingra R et al. 2007).
Much of the consternation over corn syrup's fattening potential concerns children, but studies examining the relationship between soda drinking and obesity in kids have not found clear links (Dubois L et al. 2007; Johnson L et al. 2007; O'Connor TM et al. 2006).
However, it's clear that drinking soda induces undesirable impacts that promote diabetes and obesity. As the author of a recent review wrote: “Sugar-sweetened beverages, [which are] classified as high-glycemic index (GI) liquids, increase postprandial [after-meal] blood glucose levels and decrease insulin sensitivity” (Harrington S 2008).
If soda is a fattening habit, it may have little to do with HFCS, as opposed to cane sugar. Obesity rates in countries where cane sugar still holds sway as beverage-sweetener of choice have risen at similar rates, compared with the U.S.
Obesity risks aside, new research shows that adding HFCS to carbonated beverages produces a chemical that raises diabetes risks and accelerates aging (See “Corn-Sweetened Sodas High in Pro-Aging Agent”).
More than the FDA's surprising decision or public health concerns, the rising price of corn may be the straw that breaks corn syrup's hold on America's big beverage and packaged food brands.