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The Murky World of High
Fructose Corn Syrup
See update below
© Mother Linda's
Plumes from ADM's high fructose corn syrup factory in Cedar
Rapids, Iowa can be seen for miles.
Think of sugar and you think of
sugar cane or beets. Extraction of sugar from sugar cane spurred the
colonization of the New World. Extraction of sugar from beets was developed
during the time of Napoleon so that the French could have sugar in spite of the
English trading blockade.
Nobody thinks of sugar when they
see a field of corn. Most of us would be surprised to learn that the larger
percentage of sweeteners used in processed food comes from corn, not sugar cane
The process for making the sweetener high
fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of corn was developed in the 1970s. Use of HFCS
grew rapidly, from less than three million short tons in 1980 to almost 8
million short tons in 1995. During the late 1990s, use of sugar actually
declined as it was eclipsed by HFCS. Today Americans consume more HFCS than
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is produced by
processing corn starch to yield glucose, and then processing the glucose to
produce a high percentage of fructose. It all sounds rather simple—white
cornstarch is turned into crystal clear syrup. However, the process is actually
very complicated. Three different enzymes are needed to break down cornstarch,
which is composed of chains of glucose molecules of almost infinite length, into
the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
First, cornstarch is treated with alpha-amylase
to produce shorter chains of sugars called polysaccharides. Alpha-amylase is
industrially produced by a bacterium, usually Bacillus sp. It is
purified and then shipped to HFCS manufacturers.
Next, an enzyme called glucoamylase breaks the
sugar chains down even further to yield the simple sugar glucose. Unlike
alpha-amylase, glucoamylase is produced by Aspergillus, a fungus, in a
fermentation vat where one would likely see little balls of Aspergillus
floating on the top.
The third enzyme, glucose-isomerase, is very
expensive. It converts glucose to a mixture of about 42 percent fructose and
50-52 percent glucose with some other sugars mixed in. While alpha-amylase and
glucoamylase are added directly to the slurry, pricey glucose-isomerase is
packed into columns and the sugar mixture is then passed over it. Inexpensive
alpha-amylase and glucoamylase are used only once, glucose-isomerase is reused
until it loses most of its activity.
There are two more steps involved. First is a
liquid chromatography step that takes the mixture to 90 percent fructose.
Finally, this is back-blended with the original mixture to yield a final
concentration of about 55 percent fructose—what the industry calls high fructose
HFCS has the exact same sweetness and taste as
an equal amount of sucrose from cane or beet sugar but it is obviously much more
complicated to make, involving vats of murky fermenting liquid, fungus and
chemical tweaking, all of which take place in one of 16 chemical plants located
in the Corn Belt. Yet in spite of all the special enzymes required, HFCS is
actually cheaper than sugar. It is also very easy to transport—it's just piped
into tanker trucks. This translates into lower costs and higher profits for food
The development of the HFCS process came at an
opportune time for corn growers. Refinements of the partial hydrogenation
process had made it possible to get better shortenings and margarines out of
soybeans than corn. HFCS took up the slack as demand for corn oil margarine
declined. Lysine, an amino acid, can be produced from the corn residue after the
glucose is removed. This is the modus operandi of the food
conglomerates—break down commodities into their basic components and then put
them back together again as processed food.
Today HFCS is used to sweeten jams, condiments
like ketchup, and soft drinks. It is also a favorite ingredient in many
so-called health foods. Four companies control 85 percent of the $2.6 billion
business—Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Staley Manufacturing Co. and CPC
International. In the mid-1990s, ADM was the object of an FBI probe into price
fixing of three products—HFCS, citric acid and lysine—and consumers got a
glimpse of the murky world of corporate manipulation.
There's a couple of other murky things that
consumers should know about HFCS. According to a food technology expert, two of
the enzymes used, alpha-amylase and glucose-isomerase, are genetically modified
to make them more stable. Enzymes are actually very large proteins and through
genetic modification specific amino acids in the enzymes are changed or replaced
so the enzyme's "backbone" won't break down or unfold. This allows the industry
to get the enzymes to higher temperatures before they become unstable.
Consumers trying to avoid genetically modified
foods should avoid HFCS. It is almost certainly made from genetically modified
corn and then it is processed with genetically modified enzymes. I've seen some
estimates claiming that virtually everything—almost 80 percent—of what we eat
today has been genetically modified at some point. Since the use of HFCS is so
prevalent in processed foods, those figures may be right.
But there's another reason to avoid HFCS.
Consumers may think that because it contains fructose—which they associate with
fruit, which is a natural food—that it is healthier than sugar. A team of
investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that this just
Sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose.
When sugar is given to rats in high amounts, the rats develop multiple health
problems, especially when the rats were deficient in certain nutrients, such as
copper. The researchers wanted to know whether it was the fructose or the
glucose moiety that was causing the problems. So they repeated their studies
with two groups of rats, one given high amounts of glucose and one given high
amounts of fructose. The glucose group was unaffected but the fructose group had
disastrous results. The male rats did not reach adulthood. They had anemia, high
cholesterol and heart hypertrophy—that means that their hearts enlarged until
they exploded. They also had delayed testicular development. Dr. Field explains
that fructose in combination with copper deficiency in the growing animal
interferes with collagen production. (Copper deficiency, by the way, is
widespread in America.) In a nutshell, the little bodies of the rats just fell
apart. The females were not so affected, but they were unable to produce live
"The medical profession thinks fructose is
better for diabetics than sugar," says Dr. Field, "but every cell in the body
can metabolize glucose. However, all fructose must be metabolized in the liver.
The livers of the rats on the high fructose diet looked like the livers of
alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic."
HFCS contains more fructose than sugar and this
fructose is more immediately available because it is not bound up in sucrose.
Since the effects of fructose are most severe in the growing organism, we need
to think carefully about what kind of sweeteners we give to our children. Fruit
juices should be strictly avoided—they are very high in fructose—but so should
anything with HFCS.
Interestingly, although HFCS is used in many
products aimed at children, it is not used in baby formula, even though it would
probably save the manufactueres a few pennies for each can. Do the formula
makers know something they aren't telling us? Pretty murky!
This article originally appeared in Wise Traditions in
Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A.
Price Foundation, Fall 2001, through special arrangements by the author. Posted
on this site, February 21, 2006. All rights reserved.
September 2010: Seemingly
because of all the bad press HFCS has been getting in the past few years, the
corn refiners industry has petitioned the US government, USDA or FDA (not sure
which one), to change the name "high fructose corn syrup" to "corn sugar." Any
anthropologist will tell you there is power in naming, so re-naming, in essence
re-branding, is the first step to giving a maligned product a shiny new birth!
Do Google to find out more....and watch your labels. Will I have to change the
name of this article to "The Murky World of Corn Sugar?" Time will tell.
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