What's So Bad About High Fructose Corn Syrup?
High-Fructose Corn Syrup and Mercury
Is high-fructose corn syrup making you fat?
A. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a manmade sweetener that’s found in a wide range of processed foods, from ketchup and cereals to crackers and salad dressings. It also sweetens just about all of the (regular) soda Americans drink. HFCS used in foods is between 50 to 55 percent fructose—so chemically, it’s virtually identical to table sugar (sucrose), which is 50 percent fructose. Metabolic studies suggest our bodies break down and use HFCS and sucrose the same way.
Yet, after HFCS began to be widely introduced into the food supply 30-odd years ago, obesity rates skyrocketed. And because the sweetener is so ubiquitous, many blame HFCS for playing a major role in our national obesity epidemic. As a result, some shoppers equate HFCS with “toxic waste” when they see it on a food label. But when it comes right down to it, a sugar is a sugar is a sugar. A can of soda contains around nine teaspoons of sugar in the form of HFCS—but, from a biochemical standpoint, drinking that soda is no worse for you than sipping home-brewed iced tea that you’ve doctored with nine teaspoons of table sugar or an equivalent amount of honey.
Even Barry Popkin, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who previously suggested, in an influential 2004 paper, a possible HFCS-obesity link, stresses that the real obesity problem doesn’t lie just with HFCS. Rather, it’s the fact that sugars from all sources have become so prevalent in our food supply, especially in our beverages. He scoffs at the “natural” sweeteners sometimes added to upscale processed foods like organic crackers and salad dressings. “They all have the same caloric effects as sugar,” he explains. “I don’t care whether something contains concentrated fruit juice, brown sugar, honey or HFCS. The only better sweetener option is ‘none of the above.’”
At EatingWell, it’s our philosophy to keep any sweeteners we use in our recipes to a minimum—and likewise, to limit processed foods with added sugars of any type, including HFCS. We recommend you do the same.
Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup - how are they made?
Pure cornstarch is by far the biggest source of the other carbohydrate sweeteners used by today’s food manufacturers. Cornstarch is split into a variety of smaller fragments (called dextrins) with acid or enzymes. The smaller fragments are then converted into the various cornstarch sweeteners used by today’s food manufacturers.
Hydrolysis is the term used to describe the overall process where starch is converted into various sweeteners.
Sweetener products made by cornstarch hydrolysis include dextrose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, and crystalline fructose.
What is dextrose?
Dextrose is the commercial name used for the crystalline glucose produced from starch. If the crystallized dextrose (glucose) contains no water, it is listed as “dextrose anhydrous” or “anhydrous dextrose” in an ingredient statement. If the crystallized dextrose contains one molecule of water, it will be listed as “dextrose” or “dextrose monohydrate” in an ingredient statement. The majority of the dextrose listed in food ingredient statements began as cornstarch.
Food manufacturers may list dextrose produced from cornstarch as “corn sugar” in an ingredient statement. If the dextrose comes from another source like rice or wheat, the ingredient list would read “rice sugar” or “wheat sugar,” respectively.
Dextrose is used in many baking products like cake mixes and frostings, snack foods like cookies, crackers and pretzels, and desserts like custards and sherbets. Dextrose is also used as a filler in the single-serve, table-top packets of the common artificial sweeteners.
What is corn syrup?
The singular term “corn syrup” is somewhat of a misnomer because it is used to identify a group of sweeteners that differ from one another simply by the amount of dextrose (glucose) present in the commercial syrup. Since only a single type of corn syrup is generally used in a food product, the term “corn syrup” is permitted in an ingredient statement. However, consumers have no idea how much glucose is contained in the particular “corn syrup” listed in an ingredient statement. A commercial “corn syrup” may contain between 20% and 98% dextrose (glucose).
“Corn syrup” may also be called “glucose syrup” in an ingredient list.
Corn syrups are used in many of today’s salad dressings, tomato sauces, powdered drink mixes, fruit drinks and juices, and frozen desserts like pudding and ice milk.
What are corn syrup solids?
When a corn syrup has been concentrated to contain less than 10% water, it can be listed as “corn syrup solids” in an ingredient statement. To qualify as “corn syrup solids,” the glucose (dextrose) content must be at least 88% of the weight of the concentrated syrup. This product can be called “dried glucose syrup” or “glucose syrup solids” in an ingredient list.
Corn syrup solids are used in the same types of foods as dextrose and corn syrups.
What is maltodextrin?
A maltodextrin is a short chain of molecularly linked dextrose (glucose) molecules, and is manufactured by regulating the hydrolysis of starch. Typical commercial maltodextrins contain as few as three and as many as nineteen linked dextrose units.
While the singular term “maltodextrin” is permitted in an ingredient statement, the term “maltodextrin” can be applied to any starch hydrolysis product that contains fewer than 20 dextrose (glucose) units linked together. This means that the term “maltodextrin” stands for a family of products, not a single distinct ingredient.
Additionally, today’s commercially important maltodextrin products are produced from corn, potato or rice. Unlike the other starch sweeteners, the undefined term “maltodextrin” can be used in an ingredient list no matter the original source of starch.
Maltodextrins are used in a wide array of foods, from canned fruits to snacks. Maltodextrins may also be an ingredient in the single-serve, table-top packet of some artificial sweeteners.
What is high fructose corn syrup?
Corn syrups enriched with fructose are manufactured from syrups that have been treated to contain as much dextrose (glucose) as possible. Nearly all the glucose in these dextrose-rich corn syrups is transformed into fructose with enzymes. The fructose-enriched syrups are then blended with dextrose syrups. After blending, commercial fructose corn syrups contain either 42% or 55% fructose by weight.
It is becoming more common to further process fructose-enriched corn syrups to increase fructose content. These enhanced fructose corn syrups contain at least 95% fructose by weight.
Like ingredient terms permitted for other sweeteners manufactured from starch, the descriptor “high fructose corn syrup” denotes more than one product. The generic term “high fructose corn syrup” or its acronym “HFCS” is used in food and beverage ingredient statements. Thus, the term “high fructose corn syrup” or “HFCS” represents a family of three fundamentally different products, not a unique single ingredient.
The vast majority of the high fructose corn syrup containing 55% fructose is used to sweeten carbonated soft drinks and other flavored beverages. Minor amounts are used in frozen dairy products. Essentially all foods listing “high fructose corn syrup” as an ingredient contain the syrup with 42% fructose. The 95% fructose corn syrup is becoming more common in beverages, canned fruits, confectionery products and dessert syrups.
What is crystalline fructose?
Crystalline fructose is produced by allowing the fructose to crystallize from a fructose-enriched corn syrup. The term “crystalline fructose” is listed in the ingredient statements of foods and beverages using this corn sweetener. It is important to understand that the “crystalline fructose” listed as an ingredient comes from cornstarch, not fruit.
Crystalline fructose can be used in the same foods as the high fructose corn syrups, or in any food that contains sugar.
What are juice concentrates?
Juice concentrates may be used to directly replace sugar. These syrups are made by first heating fruit juices to remove water, and then treating with enzymes and filtering to strip all characteristic color and natural flavor from the original juice. Because of their bland initial color and flavor, grapes and pears are the primary sources of the juice concentrates used as sugar replacers. Juice concentrates that replace sugar contain traces of sucrose, and variable amounts of fructose and glucose.
If a pear juice concentrate is used, the phrase “pear juice concentrate,” or a variation, would appear in the ingredient list.
Juice concentrates are used in any foods where corn syrups have replaced sugar. They are particularly prominent in baked goods, jams and jellies, and frozen confections.
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