THE BLOG

Corn Sugar or High Fructose Corn Syrup? Which Is Worse?

09/16/2010 06:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This is a trick question, because they are both the same cheap, nutritionally empty sweetener. But in case you haven't read the news, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the FDA to allow them to change their name. Just as grandma's old-fashioned prunes were transformed into trendy dried plums with the stroke of a pen, scary high fructose corn syrup is asking to be allowed to hide behind the neutral and natural moniker corn sugar, in spite of the fact that sugar does not come naturally from corn at all.

The Corn Refiners Association claims that the name change will give the consumer "clarity," but their real reason is clear - people have become frightened of the stuff. In a recent survey 58 percent of Americans said they were concerned that HFCS poses a health risk, and numerous manufacturers have already stopped using it in their products. This vilification of HFCS is costing the corn refiners money in lost revenues, and their projected sales charts must be heading south. Perhaps even more significantly, it is hurting the real and projected profit margins of our largest food conglomerates as they switch back to more expensive sweeteners derived from cane or beets. If Americans decide to avoid HFCS, this could have a negative impact on agribusiness. Higher costs may result in us eating fewer processed foods, which means less sugar from any source, and so, as far as Corn Refiners and Big Food are concerned, it is time to try to fool some of the people all of the time once more.

It may seem like HFCS has been around forever, but it actually was in the late 1960s that Japanese scientists invented technology that could convert cornstarch into fructose and blend it with glucose. That is how the name was derived, and at the time corn processors thought it was a great one, since it enabled them to market this new sweetener as "natural" based on the reasoning that fructose is found in honey and fruits. HFCS even began showing up in tablet and crystal forms as a new kind of miracle drug, sporting claims that it cured everything from alcoholism to obesity. In 1979, the US Postal Service stopped mail distribution of booklets that advertised fast and automatic weight loss with fructose tablets, which was arguably one of the nuttiest diet plans of all time.

It is likely that food processors would have experimented with HFCS under any circumstances, but in the early-to-mid 1970s, sugar prices were escalating. Nixon, in an attempt to secure the farm vote in the 1972 election, directed his Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, (who was often referred to, among other things, as "Secretary of Agribusiness") to instruct subsidized farmers to plant "fencerow to fencerow" with soy and corn. Corn became abundant and very cheap at a time that sugar prices were so high that Hawaiian plantation owners were paying laborers a previously unthinkable $3.20 an hour to hand-harvest the stalks. The floodgates were opened, and American consumption of caloric sweetener has never been the same.

The incredible thing about HFCS was that it wasn't just as sweet as sugar; it also extended shelf life and improved product appearance. It began appearing as an ingredient in crackers, baked goods, frozen foods and soft drinks. It made eating badly easier than ever.

Whether consuming huge amounts of HFCS is more or less harmful than similar amounts of cane or beet sugar is still under debate, and there does not seem to be enough evidence to say that it is. Too much of any type of sweetener is bad for your health. The problem with HFCS was how inexpensively it could (and still can) be produced from all that subsidized corn. For example, there are 10 teaspoons of sweetener in 12 ounces of Coke, but the new lower cost of ingredients allowed manufacturers, and thus consumers, to upsize. The Big Gulp, which convenience store chain 7-Eleven debuted in 1980, was a 32-ounce fountain soda. Eventually, a 64-ounce Double Gulp also became available.

Between 1980 and 2000, an additional 400 calories per day were added to the American diet, and since sweetened soda is the number one food consumed in America, it is a reasonable assumption that most of these calories came from HFCS. In 1980 about 25 percent of adult Americans were obese or overweight, now nearly 70 percent are. Obesity is linked to diabetes, stroke, heart disease and certain cancers. If we are starting to be wary of HFCS, it is for good reason.

In 1976, the FDA published a report on the new ingredient HFCS, which was labeled GRAS (generally regarded as safe). Although there was concern about increased caloric sweetener in the diet, the paper concluded: "...it is not possible to determine without additional data, whether an increase in consumption that would result if there were a significant increase in the total of corn sugar, corn syrup, invert sugar and sucrose added to foods, would constitute a dietary hazard."

The results are in - the feared "dietary hazard" became a reality - and we are consuming far too many calories. The FDA may say they need "additional data" to know if a name change will increase or decrease consumption - they can't see the future any better now than in 1976 - and grant the corn refiners' wish.

If HFCS is not the big, profitable business it once was, that should be of no concern to the FDA. Indeed, the only reason to allow HFCS to suddenly masquerade as "corn sugar" would be to help Big Food seamlessly continue to reap extraordinary, subsidized profits.

FDA - in the next few months it's up to you. Be part of the solution - PLEASE!