What's So Bad About High Fructose Corn Syrup?

By Joyce Hendley, M.S., May/June 2009

The truth behind the buzz about this controversial sweetener.

"Good article. It's unfortunate that some people refuse to see any other possible interpretations of facts besides what they have already chosen to believe. "

Can “natural” or “organic” products contain HFCS?

A “natural” granola bar or fruit drink may contain HFCS but an “organic” one cannot—at least until someone invents USDA-certified organic HFCS.

The Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “natural” doesn’t have the regulatory teeth that the USDA’s definition of “organic” does. The agency requires only that natural products contain “nothing artificial (including artificial flavors) or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) that would not normally be expected in the food.” Last year, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA, arguing that though a synthetic agent (glutaraldehyde) is used to make HFCS, it does not come into contact with the sugars. In response, the FDA allowed that, when made by the process the CRA described, HFCS fits the criteria for “natural.” This decision cleared the way for manufacturers to request “natural” claims on foods containing HFCS.

Certainly, you could argue that “natural” does not seem an appropriate descriptor for HFCS—or for table sugar. Neither occurs in nature in the forms we use them in. Both need plenty of heating, filtering and centrifuging to extract a finished product. HFCS is processed repeatedly with enzymes; sugar is refined using calcium hydroxide or phosphorus.

From an environmental standpoint, HFCS production may have a slightly more negative impact than does sugar, says Jason Clay, Ph.D., senior vice president of markets for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. Producing both sweeteners uses similar amounts of water, but HFCS requires more energy and nitrogen fertilizer, he explains. “It also takes a lot less land to grow the same amount of sweetener with sugarcane than with corn.”

Bottom line: To date, the research suggests that high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar aren’t that different: they’re both processed sweeteners that add “empty” calories to our diets. Our bodies seem to treat them the same way. At EatingWell, we try to limit sweeteners of any kind in recipes. Whenever possible, we use ingredients that don’t contain HFCS.

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