We are very excited to bring you What is it? Wednesdays! Every other Wednesday, we’ll explore a different ingredient or product in depth. We’ll be covering the benefits, uses and common misconceptions about each. If you have any requests, leave them in the comments and we’ll work them into the schedule.
In this special edition of What is it? Wednesday, I am breaking with tradition and covering something that we do not use at Bob’s Red Mill- High Fructose Corn Syrup. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is the epitome of villainous ingredients these days (right up there next to trans fats), but I wasn’t really sure why. With Bob’s prodding, I set out to discover and report back what it is about HFCS that has everyone up in arms.
What is it?
Without getting too complex or scientific on this, corn is milled into corn starch (an incredibly fine substance with the germ and bran removed). Corn starch is processed into corn syrup. Enzymes are then added to turn some of the naturally occurring glucose (sugar) into fructose (another kind of sugar). Sounds ok. Not too scary, processed for sure, but nothing so wild that it’s worthy of the controversy. BUT, it doesn’t stop there. The syrup is then purified to leave a substance that is almost entirely fructose (about 90%).
But, isn’t fructose what is in fruit? Yep. Fructose is not inherently bad. What is bad is eating too much of it and eating too much of it in one sitting and eating too much of it over a long period of time. The fructose you get in a piece of fruit- no problem. Fruit is filled with glucose, dietary fiber and other nutrients to balance out the fructose. Eating too much fruit in one sitting and continuing that habit of consumption over the course of time is not good. Most of us don’t typically do that and we’d probably feel pretty darn sick before we ate enough to be a real problem.
Why is it “bad”?
I got into the nitty gritty for you and, let me tell you, scientific journals are a far cry from my typical reading. I found a few key points that are worth sharing. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in January 2013, it was found that glucose and fructose act very differently in our bodies. When the body processes glucose, hormones are secreted by our brain to produce a feeling of satiety and we, in turn, decrease our food intake. When the body processes fructose, those hormones are not released and the feeling of satiety is not stimulated, thus increasing food intake (or at least not shutting off the desire to eat more). In English, Glucose makes us feel full and satisfied, fructose does not (see the end of this post for a full quote from the article).
Why is it used so often?
It’s cheap to produce, it blends well in foods and consumers can, literally, not eat enough of it. Through many studies of food preferences, it has been found that consumers prefer the sweetness of fructose and its incredible versatility as an ingredient is a food innovator’s dream.  It helps with the appearance of baked goods, soups, sauces, well, you name it. HFCS is being used in nearly every processed food.
When you put it into context with the above studies, it just makes sense why consumers would be able to eat and eat and eat foods with HFCS. Our body doesn’t get the signal that it’s full. Our body can’t get the insulin in place to manage this “sugar” and it gets turned into fat as a consequence. That fat moves into our blood stream and begins work on clogging our arteries and slowing down our blood flow. Not a pretty picture.
How to avoid it?
I cannot say it enough- read the label. It’s pretty safe to say that most (if not all) highly processed foods use high fructose corn syrup. If you’re eating at a fast food chain, it’s likely that each food, from the hamburger bun and the meat to the condiments, contains HFCS. You can’t be sure when you’re eating out, but you can when you’re shopping at the grocery store. Pick up that box of macaroni and cheese you’re about to feed your toddler and find HFCS in the cheese sauce. That bottle of salad dressing you’re grabbing for your salads, that ice cream, that juice… yep, most foods, really.
Stick to foods you know and trust. Stick to whole food ingredients and ingredient lists that are short. Regular corn syrup is not great, but it’s a better sweetener than HFCS, if those are the two options. Many manufacturers are getting wise and offering alternative options for their products that are sweetened with white sugar. Not great, but not as bad as HFCS. 7-Up, for instance, uses sugar now and Heinz has started offering “Simply Heinz” a sugar- sweetened ketchup as an alternative to its classic ketchup.
Then, limit the amount of sweets and sugary drinks in your life. Making smart choices will help you on your road to good health.
HFCS is definitely not good for you and you should limit how much you consume.
Read ingredient lists and choose options that do not rely on HFCS for sweetening and keep you coming back for more and more.
Limit the amount of sugary foods in your diet, regardless of how they are sweetened.
 Page, Chan, Arora, Belfort-DeAguiar, Dzuira, Roehmholdt, Cline, Naik, Sinha, Costable and Sherwin, 2013. “Effects of fructose vs glucose on regional cerebral blood flow in brain regions involved with appetite and reward pathways.” JAMA, 309 (1): 63-70.
 Dolson, Laura. “Fructose: Sweet, but Dangerous.” About.com. Web. Updated 4 April, 2014 http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/nutrition/a/fructosedangers.htm?p=1
Exact quotes from the study mentioned above.
In contrast to glucose ingestion, fructose ingestion only weakly stimulates secretion of insulin, a hormone that acts centrally to increase satiety and blunt the reward value of food… Compared with glucose ingestion, fructose ingestion attenuates increase in circulating levels of the satiety hormone glucagon-like polypeptide and does not attenuate levels of ghrelin an appetite stimulating hormone. Thus, fructose possibly increased food-seeking behavior and increases food intake. 
Increases in fructose consumption have paralleled the increasing prevalence of obesity, and high-fructose diets are thought to promote weight gain and insulin resistance. In this study, ingestion of glucose but no fructose reduced cerebral blood flow and thus activity in specific brain regions that regulate appetite and reward processing. In keeping with these data, ingestion of glucose but not fructose produced increased ratings of satiety and fullness.