While I address the existence of high fructose corn sweetener in my book, Midwest Maize, I don’t mention it in the presentation I offer on corn history. I stick to history with that—the fun stuff, like Thomas Jefferson planting corn in Paris, where corn puffs come from, and how corn is associated with everything from vampires to the Chicago Bears. However, when the presentation is done, it is almost inevitable that someone asks about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). My answer has always been essentially that there is no sweetener that is safe in the quantities that most Americans consume.
Happily, at a recent symposium on corn presented by the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, I got an even better and more complete answer to this from Dr. Kantha Shelke, a food scientist who specializes in how ingredients affect humans. Shelke, who is employed by Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based science and research firm, offered remarkable insight into HFCS, as well as other sweeteners.
Interestingly, breaking down various sweeteners chemically, it turns out that honey has more fructose than HFCS 42 (the HFCS used in food). And blue agave syrup has a LOT more fructose. HFCS 42 is 58% glucose (this is the form of sugar that our bodies use and, in fact, produce, when enzymes break down what we eat) and 42% fructose. Honey is 51% glucose and 49% fructose. Blue agave syrup is 75% fructose—and can be as much as 97% fructose, depending on the brand.
Regardless of the source, fructose is fructose, and the body does not know the difference between sources of fructose. The problem is that, while the body can easily process glucose, it can only process a limited amount of fructose. Once your liver has processed as much fructose as it can handle, it turns the rest to fat. And this is true whether the fructose comes from HFCS or a big glass of orange juice in the morning (or the apple juice that every small child I see seems to have in its bottle). Fructose is fructose.
I had read a lot of studies that fruit juice consumption led to obesity, but this made it clear why. I had also read that agave syrup was not healthful. But now I had the numbers that explained that as well.
What it comes down to is, as I suspected, what Shelke called the “chronic over-consumption” of sweeteners in general. And artificial sweeteners are not a better option, since your brain reacts to sweet, regardless of whether it is “real” or not. The release of insulin, if it doesn’t not find actual sugar to process, can wind up turning against natural sugars in joints or corneas, and it is thought that this might be part of why we’ve seen an increase in the number of people with cataracts.
Oh, and just as an fyi, corn syrup is 100% glucose, and it’s a lot less sweet than fructose.
Dr. Shelke’s presentation included a great deal of other fascinating information. If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, I’d encourage you to try to hear her.
But what this means is you don’t have to panic if there is a little HFCS in your bottle of ketchup, but you really shouldn’t consume the stunning amounts of sugar (in any form) that most Americans consume. So, it’s not the HFCS in and of itself. As Shelke noted, “There are no bad ingredients. Just bad diets.”