High fructose corn syrup

I just finished up a biochemistry paper on fructose metabolism. As often happens when I write these sort of things, I found myself drifting to related topics. Namely, I looked into the research on high fructose corn syrup metabolism versus sucrose metabolism. What I found was interesting, but first I need to note something else.

About a year and a half ago I wrote about a bad opinion piece from the Chicago Tribune. I stand by most of what I said, but I want to distance myself from something contained in this paragraph:

Imagine, for those unfortunate to have it in their grocery stores, if SmartOption foods didn’t have nutrition facts. They look and sound so appealing. But a quick look at the nutrition facts and ingredients reveals that it’s a load of garbage. Or, more nationally, imagine if there was enough ignorance for those pro-high fructose corp syrup commercials to slide by uncriticized.

What I found in my research was that much of the criticism directed towards HFCS is bunk. There is evidence of short-term metabolic differences between HFCS and sucrose, but it is not without its problems. Namely, many of the studies (done with rats) look at artificially high concentrations of fructose in subject diets. No one in the real world eats just fructose. In fact, HFCS is usually listed as something like HFCS-55. That refers to the concentration of fructose (55%) in the product. Most of the rest will be glucose. There are other ratios (as high as 90% fructose, 10% glucose), but what will be found in most soft drinks is around 55% fructose, 45% glucose. Sucrose, in contrast, is about 50/50. (Those high ratio products are either used for specialty purposes or dilution.)

There is some legitimate ground for the anti-HFCS crowd. Upwards of 30% of people have difficulty absorbing fructose through their small intestine and so will face cramps, gas, and general physical discomfort and pain as a result. It’s much like lactose intolerance, though to a lesser degree. The solution for these people is to avoid too much fructose. However, manufacturers are allowed to list “corn syrup” in their ingredients instead of high fructose corn syrup. This presents an obvious problem. Those will fructose malabsorption can safely bet that any soft drink will have HFCS, but they can’t do that for a number of other products. Thus, those who oppose HFCS are right when they demand proper labeling on food products. (In contrast, I don’t share the same sympathies with those who want genetically modified labels on products.)

5 Responses

  1. This is a very informative and interesting piece, good work.

    The only thing I would add is that people make the same mistake of comparing a diet with high levels of HFCS with one with no sugar. Instead, they should compare it to a diet with HFCS replaced with expensive cane sugar or honey.

    Unfortantly, we can see that the fructose levels in all those sugars is identical.


    So the follow-up to this research is to see how sugar-laden diets impact the human body, not how one interchangeable sugar impacts the human body.

  2. FYI, from what I read it appears that much of the cheapness of HFCS comes from government subsidies. If we started doing for the beet industry what we do for the corn industry, we would probably see higher sucrose consumption.

  3. We should get rid of all agricultural subsidies. Many poor countries only comparative advantage is in agriculture, and therefore getting rid of subsidies would, so far as this goes, significantly improve the lives of people in those countries.

    In addition, wouldn’t much of the issues with HFCS stem from the fact that it is often in foods more affordable for poor people? Basically, wouldn’t much of the issues that arise from the low price of HFCS causing empty calories to become proportionately cheaper? Eliminating agricultural subsidies would also make these empty calories proportionately more expensive (to the point that [say] cane sugar is used as a substitute), in principle improving health because more expensive empty calories ought to encourage consumption of healthier foods.

    Of course, agricultural subsidies don’t have much of a chance of actually being eliminated, though.

  4. Rob, you’re forgetting the other half of the equation – the sugar tariffs make cane sugar more expensive than it has to be, so sugar would still be higher than normal.

    The only qualm I have is that you’re assuming people would eat more fruits and vegetables if they were comparatively cheaper. It’s certainly possible, but I wonder if any Giffen Goods would be triggered – these are basic staple products that are consumed more when the price goes up, because people have less money leftover to buy anything else.

  5. […] High fructose corn syrup (forthesakeofscience.com) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   Leave a comment […]

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