Another chemical creation

Along with partially hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup is another inexpensive product to avoid.

Kelsey Kudak

While trans-fats are surely something unsafe for our bodies, the jury continues to deliberate another menace: High fructose corn syrups. Like the partially hydrogenated oils I wrote of a few weeks ago, HFCS (as the industry deems them) offer the same appeal of a longer shelf life and more bang for your buck; fructose is reportedly twenty times sweeter than sucrose (plain table sugar).

HFCS is an ingredient of innumerable, common products and nearly impossible to avoid unless you are an entirely organic consumer. Taking part in crackers, candies, cereals, sauces, soda, soups, salad dressing and other processed foods, this liquid candy, according to the Organic Consumers Association, is the No. 1 source of calories in the U.S. diet.

More than half of sweeteners in foods today are made from corn and the OCA informs readers that much of the corn utilized to make HFCS is genetically modified. As our country is a large producer of corn, the materials necessary to produce this goopy, clear liquid are readily available. Because it comes from corn, many claim the syrup to be a natural product.

However, the FDA has never established a working definition of a “natural product.” But I can assure you, HFCS is not one of them. Like partially hydrogenated oils, HFCS is produced through a set of mechanically induced chemical reactions in tubed, stainless steel vats with all the bells and whistles of a mad scientist lab. I am fairly certain, though, that a product produced in a lab via molecular rearrangement cannot be considered natural, even if it begins as starch from corn. Just because artificial coloring isn’t added to a product does not guarantee its natural state.

In an article on the syrup in July 2006, The New York Times briefly explained the process, mentioning the vats and enzymes involved, but nutrition sciences senior Carlye Burd helped me to clarify the process. After pointing out that I had mixed up HDL (“good” cholesterol) and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) in my column a few weeks ago, she was happy to lend me some of her expertise on HFCS. “Starch,” she said, “or long chains of glucose molecules are hydrolyzed (broken up) into singular molecules. Once the molecules are separated from the corn starch, they are treated with an enzyme called isomerase, which chemically converts half the glucose present to fructose.” HFCS is nearly a 50-50 mixture of the two sugars, but its sweetness remains more potent than other forms of sugar like sucrose or glucose.

The Washington Post described the difference between glucose and fructose in 2003: Consumption of glucose is a natural catalyst for an increase of insulin production in the pancreas that allows the transport of sugar in cells to make energy. It also increases the production of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and fat storage in the body. Glucose also suppresses the hormone ghrelin in the stomach that helps regulate food intake and makes you feel full when you are eating.

Fructose, on the other hand, does none of these things and appears to function more like fat intake in the body. Because it bypasses these regulatory, hormonal functions in the body, it is more likely to be stored as fat than broken down as a source of energy.

While Burd credits her knowledge to her professors here at the University, she explained in lay terms the way in which HFCS is broken down (or isn’t) by the body. “Think of it like a river, with a dam at the end that is producing energy. Glucose is coming from the lake that feeds into the river. It travels down and encounters the dam and produces energy. Fructose is poured into a water reservoir somewhere in between the lake and the dam. It is more likely to just sit there and wait (like fat build up) than to be pushed down the river to produce energy,” she said.

Therefore, our labels are deceiving. While many of the foods that contain high fructose corn syrup report no fat on their labels, our bodies treat the product otherwise. We are less likely to feel full after eating foods with HFCS, and for the benefit of the food industry, are likely to consume more of the foods that contain HFCS. The body metabolizes the syrup in a way that promotes weight gain and many believe the syrup to be linked to the rising obesity rates. While studies have yet to prove this, animal studies of high fructose corn syrup have indicated an increase in triglycerides (LDL, or bad cholesterol); these are promoters of heart disease.

The Mayo Clinic reports high fructose corn syrup is consumed by Americans in high quantities, contributing “empty” calories low in nutrition to the diet. This in itself is reason to avoid the syrup, especially in soft drinks. In 1983, almost ten years after the sweetener’s introduction to the food industry, Fortune magazine wrote that Coca-Cola saved a reported $70 million in competition with Pepsi in the year it began to use the sweetener instead of sucrose. While the food industry is covered in the syrup, it seems we should think twice before getting our own fingers sticky.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]