High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was first developed in the mid-1960s. It starts out as cornstarch, which is chemically or enzymatically degraded to glucose and some short polymers of glucose. Another enzyme is then used to convert varying fractions of glucose into fructose. Because of its unique physical and functional properties (e.g., stability in acidic foods and beverages, such as soft drinks), it was widely embraced by food formulators. Its growth has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, principally as an attractive replacement for table sugar. Today, HFCS serves as a visible marker for foods that are highly processed and refined.
Fructose comes from three main sources:
- natural sources such as fruits, some sweet vegetables, and honey;
- sucrose, or common table sugar (which is 50 percent fructose); and
- high-fructose corn syrup or HFCS (which is up to 55 percent fructose).
While some argue that the addition of fructose to foods and beverages is “natural” because fructose is found naturally in fruit and other foods, the clear difference is that the quantity of fructose that we get from fruit pales in comparison to the amount we get from processed foods. Another difference is that fructose in fruit serves as a “signal” for sweetness, energy, and nutrition. This sweet taste encouraged our ancestors to seek out fruit for both pleasure and good health. In contrast, when we consume processed and refined foods sweetened with HFCS, we get the sweetness and calories, but little else. We are essentially being short-changed on nutrients.
Although HFCS is chemically similar to sucrose (though HFCS has a slightly higher percentage of fructose), concerns have been raised that our bodies react differently to HFCS from the way our bodies react to other types of sweeteners.
All of these nutritive sweeteners are composed of approximately 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose (though the amount of fructose may be slightly higher in HFCS). All are absorbed similarly, have similar sweetness, and have the same number of calories per gram
Clearly, more research is needed to understand fully the metabolic effect of dietary fructose in humans. And more research is needed to determine whether there are any unique attributes of fructose or HFCS that make these substances a problem. Until we know more, it may be best simply to focus on reducing ALL added sugars from our diet because too much of any caloric sweetener can pose a problem (whether the sugars are derived from corn, sugar cane, beets, or fruit-juice concentrate). Excessive consumption of any sugar can promote weight gain and a range of metabolic abnormalities. Excessive consumption can also bring about adverse health conditions as well as inadequate intake of essential nutrients.