Although it’s been a food additive for more than 35 years, finding out the facts about high fructose corn syrup can be tricky. Emotions run high when agricultural lobbyists argue with sustainable food advocates over our sweetener addiction, and this debate doesn’t exactly encourage truth-telling. As a result, consumers struggle to decide where they stand.
Is high fructose corn syrup even compatible with organic living? If it’s really that bad for us, why is it everywhere in the grocery store? Are there hidden costs to this cheap sugar alternative? We’re hoping that these five facts about high fructose corn syrup will help you better understand why this issue stirs up so much controversy.
5 Surprising Facts About High Fructose Corn Syrup
1. It’s almost identical to table sugar. Almost. Big Corn likes to remind us all that high fructose corn syrup is essentially the same as the stuff we get from sugar cane. That’s technically true, but focus on the word “essentially.” Cane sugar’s chemical name is sucrose, which is made by joining together glucose and fructose. High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of glucose and fructose, but the two components are not attached, as they are in sucrose. The sugar sub-units are able to enter our bloodstream more rapidly because less digestion is needed – and this might cause metabolic problems.
Because levels of the two component sugars can be adjusted independently, most high fructose corn syrup actually contains about 5% more fructose than standard sugar. Fructose is much sweeter than other sugars (about 1.7 times sweeter than sucrose and more than twice as sweet as glucose), but excessive amounts can also cause liver damage. Maybe organic living fans are right to stay away from processed sugars after all.
2. Its cost is artificially low. There’d be no reason to discuss interesting facts about high fructose corn syrup if not for the extreme surge in popularity over the past 30 years. The reason for that upswing in consumption is simple: high fructose corn syrup is a cheap substitute for cane sugar. In the spring of 2010, the cost of corn-based sweetener was about 60% the price of standard sugar.
Is that just the free market at work? Not really. Americans pay two to three times more for cane sugar than other countries because of tariffs, and the cost of corn is artificially depressed because of federal subsidies. No other country is presented with such a lopsided choice between the two sweeteners. American consumers might like to think they’re getting a good deal when they buy cheap soda, but we all pay the real cost one way or another.
3. It’s linked to increased diabetes rates. Scientific consensus is hard to come by, but recent reports show that type 2 diabetes is 20% more common in countries where high fructose corn syrup is widely available. Critics challenge studies that single out corn-based sweetener, but it’s cheap, widely available and high in calories, and it offers almost no nutritive value. This stuff deserves top billing, even if there’s plenty of blame to go around.
4. It might be killing our bees. In the 1970s, commercial honey organizations started to feed their bees high fructose corn syrup to save money. Research at the time showed it was safe, but studies today suggest that pollen helps to keep bees strong by training their immune systems. When they eat only artificial sweetener, they become more susceptible to pesticides.
Researchers at the University of Illinois believe this can be linked to colony collapse disorder, which is causing bees to die around the world. If the theory is true – it’s a big mystery for now – then we’ll have to find an alternate food source for our hives. All sorts of crops depend on bees for fertilization.
5. It produces lobbying cash. The Corn Refiners Association is responsible for most of the lobbying and public relations work for the processed corn industry, and they’ve spent millions to make sure the market favors high fructose corn syrup producers. That includes a $30 million campaign to convince shoppers that corn-based sweeteners are just as good as sugar. They’ve even made a push to give high fructose corn syrup a new, more palatable name. “Corn sugar” is what they’d like to call it.
Those publicity gambles didn’t quite pay off, but don’t feel bad for the corn industry: in 2008, high fructose corn syrup was a $5.7 billion industry.
The fight for sustainable food seems pretty righteous when these facts about high fructose corn syrup are taken into account, but it won’t be as simple as trading in our corn-based sweetener for sugar cane. The average American simply eats too much sugar, regardless of the source. If we want to cut the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., we’ll need to cut back on our sugar consumption.
Don’t despair, though, organic living promoters: public opinion has already started to shift. High fructose corn syrup is now a buzzword in this country, and if consumer advocates keep speaking out about the dangers, the issue will become ever harder to ignore. Feel free to bash or to stand up for high fructose corn syrup in the comments section below!