The decline and fall of high-fructose corn syrup.

The state of the universe.
April 28 2009 4:15 PM

Dark Sugar

The decline and fall of high-fructose corn syrup.

Soda. Click image to expand.
Is sugar more "natural" than high-fructose corn syrup?

High-fructose corn syrup first started trickling into our food supply about 40 years ago; by 1984, it was flowing from just about every soda fountain in the country. These days HFCS accounts for almost half of all the added sugars in the U.S. diet, but the corn Niagara may soon be over. Last week, PepsiCo became the latest manufacturer to turn its back on America's sweetener, introducing three new soft drinks —Pepsi Natural, Pepsi Throwback, and Mountain Dew Throwback—sweetened with a "natural" blend of cane and beet sugars. Next week, Snapple will roll out its most expensive advertising campaign ever to promote a "natural" line of tea drinks brewed with "real" cane sugar. Pizza Hut, Kraft Foods, and ConAgra have also made the switch in recent months. Not even a $30 million multimedia campaign from the Corn Refiners Association has done much to reverse the trend.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

The case against HFCS comprises the three cardinal claims of food politics: Like other villainous ingredients—trans fat and artificial food dye come to mind—high-fructose corn syrup is accused of being at once unhealthy, unnatural, and unappetizing. (These might be described as the Hippocratic, Platonic, and Epicurean tines of the foodie movement.) While none of these claims is completely wrong when it comes to corn sweetener, none is quite right, either.

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Our fear of high-fructose corn syrup seems to have arisen from some very real concerns over the health effects of fructose, one of its principal components. The ingestion of glucose, another basic sugar, is known to stimulate the release of body chemicals that regulate food intake. Fructose, on the other hand, does little to suppress your appetite, and it seems to be preferentially associated with the formation of new fat cells. A growing body of research has led some scientists to wonder whether the increased consumption of fructose over the past few decades might be responsible for rising rates of obesity.

More damning evidence against fructose emerged just last week in an important study from the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Researchers in California recruited volunteers to drink a glass of Kool-Aid with every meal for 10 weeks; half took their soft drinks sweetened with fructose, the other half with glucose. By the end of the study period, both groups had put on weight, but the subjects getting fructose had more visceral fat—the kind that adheres to our organs and is associated with heightened risk for atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. The fructose group also showed higher levels of LDL cholesterol and lower insulin sensitivity. (One flaw in the Kool-Aid study: Fructose is much sweeter than glucose, so in the real world you wouldn't need as much of it to sweeten your drink.)

So there's every reason to believe that fructose is worse for you than glucose, at least taken pound-for-pound. But it's another thing altogether to suggest that high-fructose corn syrup is worse for you than other caloric sweeteners. Despite its name, HFCS doesn't contain much more fructose than table sugar—the product refined from beets or sugar cane. The stuff we put in our coffee, called sucrose, is a compound of equal parts fructose and glucose, * while the corn syrup used in soft drinks is a mixture of 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose. (The sugar ratio in HFCS is about the same as in honey.) If fructose were really the source of all evil, then HFCS would be only marginally more sinful than "real" cane sugar. Indeed, the authors of the study published last week don't distinguish between the two sweeteners: Corn syrup and sugar could be equally bad, they argue, since both contain significant quantities of fructose: "Additional studies are needed to compare the long-term effects of consuming HFCS and/or sucrose with 100% fructose."

There may be other reasons to blame obesity in the United States on high-fructose corn syrup. According to a critique popularized by Michael Pollan, the development of HFCS allowed cheap, subsidized corn to be converted into cheap, subsidized sugar. Food processors plumped up with empty calories, and America got fat. But it's not clear we'd be consuming any less sweetener if corn weren't so cheap and plentiful. Since the corn content of HFCS contributes less than 2 percent (PDF) to the cost of producing a can of soda, the effect of the subsidies amounts to just a few pennies in the retail price. And while the price of corn syrup is kept artificially low by farm subsidies, the prices of other sweeteners are artificially inflated by tariffs and quotas on imported raw cane sugar and refined sugar. In other words, if we wiped out all of our subsidies and trade restrictions, we'd still have plenty of cheap sugar around, and processed foods would be just as caloric. As Tom Philpott points out in Grist, you don't need high-fructose corn syrup to rack up American-style obesity rates: Australia manages similar numbers with a food industry based largely on cane sugar.

The unwholesome reputation of HFCS has no doubt been exacerbated by the general view that it's less "natural" than other forms of sugar. The notion that anything natural is healthy—and anything artificial is not—seems especially silly when it comes to added sweeteners. If fructose is indeed the problem, we'd do well to avoid the all-natural sweeteners in health-food products and fruit drinks, which often include concentrated apple or pear juices. These are almost two-thirds fructose—and might be significantly worse for your health than HFCS. (Organic, raw agave nectar could be even more dangerous, containing 90 percent fructose.) In any case, the question of how to classify HFCS is a vexing one, since the highly processed syrup is made from a natural product that grows in the soil. The major argument for designating HFCS as an artificial product relies on the long list of chemicals used to convert corn starch into fructose and glucose. (Two of those chemicals can transfer trace quantities of mercury into the finished product.) At least one part of the process makes incidental use of a toxic, synthetic fixing agent called glutaraldehyde.

On that basis, consumers have repeatedly tried to sue soft-drink manufacturers for marketing HFCS-sweetened products as "all natural." In 2007, the makers of 7Up and Capri Sun changed the wording of their labels in the face of legal action. A similar lawsuit against Snapple was tossed out last year, when the judge decided that what can only be described as the metaphysical status of corn syrup was better left up to the bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA, for its part, finally addressed the matter in mid-2008, ruling in favor of the corn refiners. According to the government, HFCS can be considered "natural" so long as the glutaraldehyde never comes into physical contact with the syrup.

That ruling has done little to convince the public, though, and the food industry has continued to indulge the notion that corn syrup is fake while cane sugar and beet sugar are real. The makers of new, sugar-sweetened soft drinks inevitably tout their all-natural ingredients—according to the Mintel marketing research group, the "natural" claim was more prominent than any other in 2008, appearing on 23 percent of new food and beverage labels.

These same marketing campaigns pander to the widespread and unproven belief that high-fructose corn syrup has an unpleasant flavor. ("Science aside, there's no question that sugar just plain tastes better," says one prominent food blog.) The vice president of marketing for Snapple announced that the company's decision to change sweeteners "comes down to delivering great taste"; according to the editor of BevNet.com, an industry publication, cane sugar has a "much different, cleaner taste. … You don't have that syrupy coat in your mouth after you drink it." This sentiment accounts for the yearly excitement over the sugar-sweetened, kosher Coke and Pepsi that turn up at the supermarket during Passover; HFCS-free Mexican Coke generates similar enthusiasm for its supposedly better taste.

Some flavor experts are skeptical, though. They point out that the formulation of high-fructose corn syrup was precisely calibrated to mimic the taste of sucrose before it was subbed into soft drinks in the early 1980s. (Coca-Cola spokesmen have been particularly adamant that there is no perceivable taste difference between the two.) Scientists have tried to evaluate the relative flavors of pure sugars: A 1996 study, for example, found that fructose, glucose, and sucrose were indistinguishable as long as doses were matched for sweetness intensity. Other research suggests that the taste of fructose has a quicker onset while the taste of glucose builds slowly and tends to linger. But no readily available studies have compared the flavor profiles of sucrose and HFCS.

That said, widespread anecdotal reports suggest that people really can tell the difference between sugar-sweetened and HFCS-sweetened colas. (I'm pretty sure I can taste it myself.) What's less clear is whether one is really any better than the other. Despite the enthusiasm for sugar-sweetened Coke and all-natural iced tea, informal taste tests have yielded ambiguous results. In a street survey conducted by the Toronto Star, most passers-by preferred regular Coke to the Passover version; several folks described the latter as tasting like aspartame. A similar confusion beset the Snapple testers at Fast Company: One described the HFCS version as tasting "more natural" while another dismissed the all-natural version for its "chemical taste."

Let's review: HFCS isn't healthy, but there's no reason to believe it's any worse for you than cane or beet sugar; HFCS is just as "natural" as any other sweetener, at least according to the U.S. government; and while HFCS seems to have a slightly different taste from pure sucrose, many people prefer it. So why are we abandoning high-fructose corn syrup? It doesn't matter how weak each claim is on its own terms; together, they seem irrefutable. You can win over hypochondriacs with one argument, environmentalists with another, and gourmands with a third. That's the beauty of the three-pronged critique: It's customizable. The foodies haven't just killed HFCS—they've stuck a fork in it.

Correction, April 29, 2009: The original version of this article described sucrose as a "mixture" of fructose and glucose. It is a disaccharide—a compound of the two. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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