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The Murky World of High-Fructose Corn Syrup PDF Print E-mail
Written by Linda Joyce Forristal, CTA, MTA   
Wednesday, 03 December 2003 17:02

In the Kitchen with Mother Linda

Think of sugar and you think of sugar cane or beets. Extraction of sugar from sugar cane spurred the colonization of the New World. Extraction of sugar from beets was developed during the time of Napoleon so that the French could have sugar in spite of the English trading blockade.

Nobody thinks of sugar when they see a field of corn. Most of us would be surprised to learn that the larger percentage of sweeteners used in processed food comes from corn, not sugar cane or beets.

The process for making the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of corn was developed in the 1970s. Use of HFCS grew rapidly, from less than three million short tons in 1980 to almost 8 million short tons in 1995. During the late 1990s, use of sugar actually declined as it was eclipsed by HFCS. Today Americans consume more HFCS than sugar.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is produced by processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to produce a high percentage of fructose. It all sounds rather simple--white cornstarch is turned into crystal clear syrup. However, the process is actually very complicated. Three different enzymes are needed to break down cornstarch, which is composed of chains of glucose molecules of almost infinite length, into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.

First, cornstarch is treated with alpha-amylase to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Alpha-amylase is industrially produced by a bacterium, usually Bacillus sp. It is purified and then shipped to HFCS manufacturers.

Next, an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose. Unlike alpha-amylase, glucoamylase is produced by Aspergillus, a fungus, in a fermentation vat where one would likely see little balls of Aspergillus floating on the top.

The third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, is very expensive. It converts glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and 50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in. While alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are added directly to the slurry, pricey glucose-isomerase is packed into columns and the sugar mixture is then passed over it. Inexpensive alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are used only once, glucose-isomerase is reused until it loses most of its activity.

There are two more steps involved. First is a liquid chromatography step that takes the mixture to 90 percent fructose. Finally, this is back-blended with the original mixture to yield a final concentration of about 55 percent fructose--what the industry calls high fructose corn syrup.

HFCS has the exact same sweetness and taste as an equal amount of sucrose from cane or beet sugar but it is obviously much more complicated to make, involving vats of murky fermenting liquid, fungus and chemical tweaking, all of which take place in one of 16 chemical plants located in the Corn Belt. Yet in spite of all the special enzymes required, HFCS is actually cheaper than sugar. It is also very easy to transport--it's just piped into tanker trucks. This translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers.

The development of the HFCS process came at an opportune time for corn growers. Refinements of the partial hydrogenation process had made it possible to get better shortenings and margarines out of soybeans than corn. HFCS took up the slack as demand for corn oil margarine declined. Lysine, an amino acid, can be produced from the corn residue after the glucose is removed. This is the modus operandi of the food conglomerates--break down commodities into their basic components and then put them back together again as processed food.

Today HFCS is used to sweeten jams, condiments like ketchup, and soft drinks. It is also a favorite ingredient in many so-called health foods. Four companies control 85 percent of the $2.6 billion business--Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC International. In the mid-1990s, ADM was the object of an FBI probe into price fixing of three products--HFCS, citric acid and lysine--and consumers got a glimpse of the murky world of corporate manipulation.

There's a couple of other murky things that consumers should know about HFCS. According to a food technology expert, two of the enzymes used, alpha-amylase and glucose-isomerase, are genetically modified to make them more stable. Enzymes are actually very large proteins and through genetic modification specific amino acids in the enzymes are changed or replaced so the enzyme's "backbone" won't break down or unfold. This allows the industry to get the enzymes to higher temperatures before they become unstable.

Consumers trying to avoid genetically modified foods should avoid HFCS. It is almost certainly made from genetically modified corn and then it is processed with genetically modified enzymes. I've seen some estimates claiming that virtually everything--almost 80 percent--of what we eat today has been genetically modified at some point. Since the use of HFCS is so prevalent in processed foods, those figures may be right.

But there's another reason to avoid HFCS. Consumers may think that because it contains fructose--which they associate with fruit, which is a natural food--that it is healthier than sugar. A team of investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that this just ain't so.

Sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. When sugar is given to rats in high amounts, the rats develop multiple health problems, especially when the rats were deficient in certain nutrients, such as copper. The researchers wanted to know whether it was the fructose or the glucose moiety that was causing the problems. So they repeated their studies with two groups of rats, one given high amounts of glucose and one given high amounts of fructose. The glucose group was unaffected but the fructose group had disastrous results. The male rats did not reach adulthood. They had anemia, high cholesterol and heart hypertrophy--that means that their hearts enlarged until they exploded. They also had delayed testicular development. Dr. Field explains that fructose in combination with copper deficiency in the growing animal interferes with collagen production. (Copper deficiency, by the way, is widespread in America.) In a nutshell, the little bodies of the rats just fell apart. The females were not so affected, but they were unable to produce live young.

"The medical profession thinks fructose is better for diabetics than sugar," says Dr. Field, "but every cell in the body can metabolize glucose. However, all fructose must be metabolized in the liver. The livers of the rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic."

HFCS contains more fructose than sugar and this fructose is more immediately available because it is not bound up in sucrose. Since the effects of fructose are most severe in the growing organism, we need to think carefully about what kind of sweeteners we give to our children. Fruit juices should be strictly avoided--they are very high in fructose--but so should anything with HFCS.

Interestingly, although HFCS is used in many products aimed at children, it is not used in baby formula, even though it would probably save the manufactueres a few pennies for each can. Do the formula makers know something they aren't telling us? Pretty murky!

 

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2001.

About the Author

[authorbio:forristal-linda]

Comments (6)Add Comment
here is a link to some interesting info re high fructose corn syrup...not so innocent!
written by abc 123, Mar 17 2013
Today HFCS is used to sweeten jams, condiments like ketchup, and soft drinks. It is also a favorite ingredient in many so-called health foods. Four companies control 85 percent of the $2.6 billion business--Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC International. In the mid-1990s, ADM was the object of an FBI probe into price fixing of three products--HFCS, citric acid and lysine--and consumers got a glimpse of the murky world of corporate manipulation.

There's a couple of other murky things that consumers should know about HFCS. According to a food technology expert, two of the enzymes used, alpha-amylase and glucose-isomerase, are genetically modified to make them more stable. Enzymes are actually very large proteins and through genetic modification specific amino acids in the enzymes are changed or replaced so the enzyme's "backbone" won't break down or unfold. This allows the industry to get the enzymes to higher temperatures before they become unstable.

Consumers trying to avoid genetically modified foods should avoid HFCS. It is almost certainly made from genetically modified corn and then it is processed with genetically modified enzymes. I've seen some estimates claiming that virtually everything--almost 80 percent--of what we eat today has been genetically modified at some point. Since the use of HFCS is so prevalent in processed foods, those figures may be right.

But there's another reason to avoid HFCS. Consumers may think that because it contains fructose--which they associate with fruit, which is a natural food--that it is healthier than sugar. A team of investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that this just ain't so.

Sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. When sugar is given to rats in high amounts, the rats develop multiple health problems, especially when the rats were deficient in certain nutrients, such as copper. The researchers wanted to know whether it was the fructose or the glucose moiety that was causing the problems. So they repeated their studies with two groups of rats, one given high amounts of glucose and one given high amounts of fructose. The glucose group was unaffected but the fructose group had disastrous results. The male rats did not reach adulthood. They had anemia, high cholesterol and heart hypertrophy--that means that their hearts enlarged until they exploded. They also had delayed testicular development. Dr. Field explains that fructose in combination with copper deficiency in the growing animal interferes with collagen production. (Copper deficiency, by the way, is widespread in America.) In a nutshell, the little bodies of the rats just fell apart. The females were not so affected, but they were unable to produce live young.

"The medical profession thinks fructose is better for diabetics than sugar," says Dr. Field, "but every cell in the body can metabolize glucose. However, all fructose must be metabolized in the liver. The livers of the rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic."

HFCS contains more fructose than sugar and this fructose is more immediately available because it is not bound up in sucrose. Since the effects of fructose are most severe in the growing organism, we need to think carefully about what kind of sweeteners we give to our children. Fruit juices should be strictly avoided--they are very high in fructose--but so should anything with HFCS.

Interestingly, although HFCS is used in many products aimed at children, it is not used in baby formula, even though it would probably save the manufactueres a few pennies for each can. Do the formula makers know something they aren't telling us? Pretty murky!



This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2001.

About the Author

Marjorie
written by Marjorie, Dec 16 2011
Regarding corn syrup in baby formula, corn syrup is almost pure glucose; it is NOT high fructose corn syrup. It results from the initial processing step of transforming cornstarch to sugar.

While fructose, like glucose, is absorbed directly into the blood from the digestive tract, body cells have no use for it; the liver breaks it down, and the chemicals of which it is composed are used to manufacture fat. In contrast, ALL body cells can utilize glucose as a food, so this is a nutrient that is beneficial to the cells of the body; the liver doesn't normally break it down and it doesn't normally contribute to the production of body fat.

An interesting study done at Princeton University titled "High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat, and triglyceride levels" was published in the November, 2010, issue of Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior (vol. 97, issue 1, pages 101-106; corrigendum page 185). The rats in this study exhibited much evidence of obesity, and the fat was found to accumulate markedly on the rats in their abdominal area.

My own experience is consistent with the data in the Princeton rat experiment. I have been moderately overweight for a good many years, and I have bemoaned an accumulation of abdominal fat for decades (which I see every time I take a bath and lie down on my back in the tub). In June, 2011, I decided that high fructose corn syrup probably isn't a good thing to eat, so I began a conscious effort to avoid consuming it, primarily by making sure that I didn't consume any soft drinks except Sierra Mist, which is sweetened with sugar. I also happened to take a bath in June (usually I shower), and saw that familiar, persistent mound of fat under my abdominal skin.

I wasn't dieting and I wasn't weighing myself; I was just making a deliberate effort to avoid consuming high fructose corn syrup.

In September people began saying to me, "You've lost weight! You look great!" I said thanks, but didn't think much about it. In October I happened to take another bath, and when I looked at my abdomen, I was STUNNED to see that that mass of abdominal fat I had had for so many years was almost ALL GONE! Since that fat had been there in June, I realized that something I had done in the preceding four months was responsible for the disappearance of my abdominal fat!

But I hadn't done anything at all, except to make a conscious effort to avoid consuming high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)!

This is the reverse of the Princeton experiment on the rats. These rats were put on a HFCS diet and became fat, especially in their abdominal area. I stopped consuming HFC and lost most of the fat in my abdominal area. I therefore infer that I had abdominal fat in the first place because of my past consumption of HFCS.

My experience strongly suggests that human beings also respond to HFCS in a manner that is very similar to the way the rats responded in the Princeton experiment.

I can't claim that my diet has been completely free of HFCS, but I am now reading labels and avoiding foods that contain HFCS, and I now consume NO soft drinks that contain HFCS, so my diet is close to being HFCS-free!

My weight is now at a normal level.

I would never have called myself obese, but I was very definitely over-weight for a good many years. Avoiding consumption of HFCS has brought my weight down to normal! And it was all quite painless!
...
written by tammy, Jan 11 2011
actually all baby formula has corn syrup in it.
Cardiac Hypertrophy
written by Lorne, Oct 20 2010
I have not read the studies on rats referenced in this article, but I am an ICU nurse and I can tell you that cardiac hypertrophy and congestive heart failure are not the same thing. Cardiac hypertrophy is only one among a number of possible causes of CHF. Additionally, there are multiple possible causes of cardiac hypertrophy, including viral cardiomyopathy and genetic cardiac hypertrophy.

And, as to the issue of hearts exploding, most humans DIE of the effects of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy before their hearts explode; however, my father, a physician, happened to be listening to a patient's heart in the ICU one day when exactly that happened. He was listening to the sound of the heartbeat while watching the heart rythm on the bedside monitor. Suddenly the sounds of the beats stopped while the electrical rythm kept on going. He turned to look at the patient and saw that the patient was just in the act of their final breath. He called a code but told the responding team that the patient's heart had undoubtedly ruptured. Autopsy showed a massively enlarged heart with a long rupture across the left ventricle. So it does happen, albeit rarely. It's just that most people expire of the effects of the critically impaired circulation first!

People claim that you can't taste the difference but i along with a lot of people I knew noticed the change in the taste of sodas of all kinds when the soft drink industry switched over the HFCS. Most of us pretty much stopped drinking sodas at that time. Recently some smaller manufacturers have been making sodas sweetened with sugar and to me the difference is quite obvious. My room mate recently tried the "throwback" versions of Pepsi and other Pepsi products which were sweetened with actual sugar and she also said she notices and much prefers the different taste. HFCS is undoubtedly contributing to childhood obesity among other health problems and hopefully consumer demand will force the decreased use of the stuff.
hypertrophy is not explosion!
written by whisperingsage, Jun 29 2010
I don't know where this started, but everyone is passing on a very disturbing untruth. To the point I would call it gossip, exaggeration or drama. Hypertrophy means this; hyper= over the norm, trophy = development. I have looked and looked in the studies and have not found any that said the hearts exploded. Cardiac Hypertrophy is equivalent to humans with congestive heart failure. If this meant they exploded, we would all be very familiar with this process, because hearts would be exploding all over the place. In fact, CHF patients walk around every day. They don't have happy bodies and aren't well, but their hearts aren't exploding. I expect this site to have a better grasp on medical terms.
Planetary Leader
written by hillbilly jack, Mar 27 2010
Thank you for the interesting article.
It's all controlled by the government and the allmighty dollar.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 06 June 2009 00:05