June 2013
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Giving Sweet Corn a Whole New Meaning

It is estimated, in the 2000s, about 511 million bushels of corn, or about 4.7 percent of the total U.S. corn crop, had been used to produce high fructose corn syrup.


In the food scene today you hear, read and see a lot about high fructose corn syrup, scientifically known as fructose. It is found in a variety of products on our grocery store shelves including baked goods, cereals, sauces, yogurts and most commonly soft drinks. The general idea floating around seems to be that it is bad for you, but is it?

Until the 1950s, who would have ever thought corn would be considered sweet? Corn is a starch which contains glucose. In 1957, researchers discovered an enzyme called glucose isomerase, which takes the composition of glucose in corn syrup and turns it into fructose. Corn syrup in its original form is not very sweet, less sweet than sucrose (which is like regular table sugar). Sugar has always had policies in the United States - from 1789 to 1930 a total of 30 different acts dealing with sugar were passed. Many of the programs were penned to encourage domestic production of sugar and refining.

According to agriculture economist Max Runge, "In the 1970s, due to high tariffs and quotas, people in the food industry started seeking out additional ways of sweetening."

In 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food and reaffirmed that decision in 1996. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the major food users of HFCS include the beverage industry (41 percent), processed food manufacturers (22 percent), cereal and bakery producers (14 percent), multiple-use food manufacturers (12 percent), the dairy industry (9 percent) and the confectionery industry (1 percent).Domestic production of HFCS increased from 2.2 million short tons in 1980 to an average of 9.2 million tons, dry weight, during the 2000s as HFCS replaced more expensively priced sugar in a variety of uses. In 1997, corn used to produce HFCS broke through the 500 million bushel level. It is estimated, in the 2000s, about 511 million bushels of corn, or about 4.7 percent of the total U.S. corn crop, had been used to produce HFCS.

Many argue that HFCS is responsible for our obesity problem.

According to Dr. Leonard Bell, a food science professor at Auburn University, "All the answers are not out there yet; there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other …. There are many different types of sugar out there, lactose is a form of sugar, but it is not very sweet."

When you eat regular table sugar, it is a compound of glucose and fructose. They split apart during digestion and it has the same amount of calories as HFCS. Honey also contains glucose and fructose and is very similar nutritionally, but corn always ends up being the product with the bad reputation. People argue that honey is better because it is "all natural," but high fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a natural-grain product. High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and therefore meets the FDA requirements for use of the term "natural."

Dr. Douglas White, professor in Nutrition and Food Science at Auburn University, pointed out that "any carb is glucose." Chemically HFCS is no different than sugar; it contains the same compound and has to be broken down by your body as regular table sugar has to be. The downside to high fructose corn syrup is it is basically empty calories.

We get many of those empty calories from carbonated beverages; he suggests choosing a sweet beverage that you get some nutritional benefit from such as orange juice which contains vitamin C, potassium and calcium. One 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola contains 240 calories and 65 grams of sugar (high fructose corn syrup is used in their United States products). If you have two or three drinks a day, you will be at over half your daily calorie count and over the amount of sugar your daily diet should include.

As with anything, it is all about moderation. Regardless of what your food is sweetened with, sugar should be limited - no matter what form it is in. We have known for years, the more calories you intake and do not burn off the more pounds you are going to put on. Some suggest in the 1970s when we started using HFCS, that is when America’s waistlines began to expand, but by then televisions were also widely used. Our society is not as active as we used to be, but there is no evidence HFCS is to blame for our obesity problems. Research will continue on high fructose corn syrup in order to make sure it does not have a detrimental effect on our body’s metabolic processes. Like with fats, there are many different kinds of sugars out there. Know what your body requires and do not take in more sugar than you should.

Anna Leigh Peek is a freelance writer from Auburn.