We Get Letters – v. 18: HFCS References

Krista/Kate weighs in with this missive:

Hello, Kate, from another Kate (I decided when I was 16 my given name, Krista, was “more grown up” – family and friends know better, and I have learned to answer to both…)

I have been directing a friend of mine who is trying to lose weight to your site for the info and references on HFCS. Another friend, who disagrees with me on HFCS, sent her this site: http://www.hfcsfacts.com/index.html
While I recognize the bias in a site published by the Corn Refiners Association, I was wondering how to intelligently debate the “facts” presented by the site. Do you have any succinct references on this subject?

Thank you, and keep up the great work on the blog…


Thanks so much for your e-mail Krista. You should be warned that High Fructose Corn Syrup is one of those topics that raises my ire. This is in large part done by the good folks folks at the Corn Refiners Association, who have been tasked with confusing the issues surrounding HFCS so that everyone believes the product to be A-Okay.

Case in point: Their FAQ Question which asks “Is HFCS a “natural” sweetener?”. Their answer is extremely disengenuous, so much so, that it borders on lying. Their answer, for those of you disinclined to view their site, is roughly “We meet the USDA’s requirement of the definition of ‘natural’”.

What they don’t say is that HFCS is a man-made product. HFCS is not a naturally occuring product, and I don’t mean that in the same way I mean that All-Purpose Flour isn’t a naturally occuring product. I mean it in the sense that HFCS must be made in a controlled environment, and enzymes not natural to corn products must be purposefully introduced to cornstarch in a very specific order for HFCS to exist.

Cornstarch has to be treated with alpha-amylase enzymes to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Then an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose. Finally the third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, is added to convert glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in.

So when the CRA claims that HFCS is “natural”, they are, frankly and bluntly, full of shit. They undoubtedly know this, but hide behind the USDA’s very lax label definition of “natural” to give consumers the wrong impression of the product. (For more on the production of HFCS, see here)

But you asked for references to back up your claims. Here’s what I got for you.

  1. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity“
  2. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:”Effect of drinking soda sweetened with aspartame or high-fructose corn syrup on food intake and body weight” (pdf file)
  3. Journal of American Medicine Association: “Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Weight Gain, and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Young and Middle-Aged Women“

There are many more, but most deal with fructose rather than high-fructose corn syrup, so I’m linking the fructose links separately. Those most addressed include A USDA study suggesting that fructose may mess up the magnesium balance in the body, spurring bone loss. Also the University of Minnesota produced a study where it was found that in men, fructose produced “significantly higher levelsˮ of trigylcerides in the blood than glucose does and that “diets high in added fructose may be undesirable, particularly for men.ˮ Finally, University of London researcher P.A. Mayes wrote that excessive fructose consumption causes the liver to release an enzyme called PDH that instructs the body to burn sugar instead of fat.

The Corn folks like to dismiss these findings by stating that Sucrose (table sugar) is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose while HFCS is sold principally in two similar ratios – 42 percent and 55 percent fructose – with the balance made up of glucose and higher sugars.

What they don’t tell you is that Sucrose is a bonded molecule while HFCS is not a bonded molecule, and thus the two are not comparable. Comparing sucrose to HFCS would be like comparing a cake to separate piles of flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and eggs.

Testing is also an issue, as there has been no extensive testing of HFCS. Several journals I’ve read surrounding this issue have the same phrase in its finding: More testing is required.

The Corn growers response to testing? They say that the FDA has found that HFCS has been labeled as “Generally regarded as Safe”. A quick search on that phrase brings us the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture’s definition: “This is used to describe the FDA philosophy that justifies approval of food additives that may not meet the usual test criteria for safety; however, these additives have been used extensively and have not demonstrated any harm to consumers.”

Which means, no official government test of these products have occured, but since no one has been proven to have died from said product, it can’t be that bad.

I hope this gives you and your friend a good start Krista. My hope, more than anything, is not that your friend does or does not consume HFCS. Let them read the evidence and come to their own conclusion.

Rather, my hope is that your friend realizes that the Corn Refiners Association cannot be fully trusted to tell the whole story.

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