America’s most controversial sweetener has had its share of twists and turns. Here, some highlights from the last 146 years. —Joyce Hendley
To get a more reliable and cheaper sweetener than West Indian sugarcane (used to make table sugar, or sucrose) and heavily taxed molasses, New York’s Union Sugar Company begins manufacturing corn syrup by treating cornstarch with enzymes. Almost all glucose, it’s virtually devoid of fructose.
Flouting Cuba’s unpredictable sugarcane production and utilizing homegrown corn, two chemists convert some of corn syrup’s glucose to fructose to create “high-fructose corn syrup” and publish their research in the journal Science. Chemically, it is identical to table sugar.
Clinton Corn Processing Co. produces the first commercial shipment of HFCS. It contains just 14 percent fructose (that seemed high at the time).
In the 1973 Farm Bill, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl (“Rusty”) Butz begins a new system of direct payments to corn farmers, helping encourage ever-bigger outputs (and huge corn surpluses).
Coca-Cola and Pepsi switch over from sugar to HFCS.
HFCS is just as prevalent in our food supply as table sugar, with just over 43 pounds per person per year available.
In a landmark article, researchers suggest that HFCS could be fueling the nation’s obesity epidemic, since obesity rates soared after HFCS entered the food supply. (Years later, study co-author Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina admits that singling out HFCS was unjustified—that all caloric sweeteners were the problem.)
The big picture. The American Dietetic Association issues a position statement on the use of sweeteners, saying that consumers can “safely enjoy a range of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners,” including HFCS, as long as they’re consuming an otherwise healthy diet.
In his bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan warns that our food supply, and even our bodies, have become “cornified”: “Read food labels in your kitchen and you’ll find that HFCS has insinuated itself into every corner of the pantry.”
The Corn Refiners Association launches a campaign to “change the conversation” about HFCS.July: A force of nature.
The FDA announces that HFCS meets its requirements for the use of the term “natural,” since it contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives.
PepsiCo adds Pepsi Natural, Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback to its line. All are “sweetened with natural sugar” (no HFCS). Snapple follows, and products start sporting “No HFCS” labels. Calorie difference between these drinks and those containing HFCS: 0.
The head of major HFCS producer Cargill reports that while HFCS sales had dropped in recent years, they were starting to see a slowing in declining demand, thanks to the industry’s nationwide consumer education campaigns.April: Just say no.
New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Clark proposes an outright ban on the use or sale of high-fructose corn syrup in the state.May: Free at last.
Food giant ConAgra announces that its Hunt’s Ketchup will no longer be made with HFCS.