The Skinny on High-Fructose Corn Syrup

As most of us know, the rise of obesity in the United States can be characterized as both rapid and extensive. It is often referred to as the “obesity epidemic.” Epidemic, refers to a disease, which spreads both rapidly and extensively. Obesity has done just that. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), has released statistics claiming that obesity in adults has increased by 60% within the past twenty years, while obesity in children has tripled in the past thirty years. In addition, only tobacco-related deaths outnumber obesity-related deaths. These statistics are staggering.

Clearly something must be done. However, combating this disease has not been easy. As obesity rates continue to climb, experts are scrambling to identify the source or sources contributing to the disease. One source, in particular, has been the subject of good deal of controversy surrounding the obesity epidemic, none other than high fructose corn syrup.

What is high-fructose corn syrup?

High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is an added sugar* that is found in a wide variety of American foods. It describes the corn syrups that have undergone a process that alters the starch molecules. This enzymatic processing converts some of the glucose in the cornstarch into fructose. The alteration creates the sweet taste that characterizes HFCS. The process was invented in the 1960s, although it was not until the late 1970s that HFCS became so widely used in American foodstuffs.

Which foods contain high-fructose corn syrup?
HFCS is added to a wide variety of foods, particularly processed foods. It would be fairly difficult to cut out all foods that contain HFCS, but there is one product in particular that is often singled out in the HFCS-obesity debate. That product is soda. There are as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in a single 12-ounce can of soda, and this sugar is HFCS. What’s more, American’s soda intake has more than doubled since 1970. The average person consumes over 50 gallons of soda in a year! That translates to a staggering amount of HFCS. In 2001, the figure was nearly 63 pounds per year!

Whichever way the cookie crumbles, too much of a good thing is never good.

Is high-fructose corn syrup to blame?
The question of whether or not HFCS is to blame for the obesity epidemic is a complex one. The division between both sides is unmistakable. Those who support the use and consumption HFCS feel that much like carbohydrates, HFCS is being vilified as the root cause of obesity. They argue that HFCS has the same composition as other “fructose-glucose sweeteners such as sucrose, honey and fruit juice concentrates and dietary sources such as fruits and juices.” It is true, for example, that the calories in table sugar and the calories in HFCS are of equal value. Champions of HFCS point to the increased consumption of fats, flour and cereal as the cause of obesity.

Those who see a correlation between HFCS and obesity believe that the introduction of HFCS mirrors, almost directly, the increase in obesity in the United States. “There is a HUGE increase of HFCS, over 1000% from 1970 to 1999. Fructose is absorbed differently in the body, which in turn “may contribute to increased energy intake and weight gain.” However, HFCS may be more indirectly to blame for the epidemic. Some experts argue that HFCS made sweet and calorie-dense food more inexpensive. Americans, because of this, became accustomed and subsequently addicted to this sugary diet–this addiction evident in the obesity epidemic.

The shortened skinny: Eat food that contains HFCS in moderation, and drink soda sparingly.

*Previous publication indicated HFCS as an “artificial sweetener”, which was written in error. As of 9/21/11, this publication has been updated and clarified.

Lara Field MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and Specialist in Pediatrics with over a decade of clinical and client experience. When she’s not actively working to keep her clients healthy, she’s a busy mother of two active boys and loves testing new recipes in her kitchen. Follow her on Instagram to see her recipe ideas, product suggestions, and see how she manages a healthy lifestyle @larafield.