There has been so much hype in the media about this one ingredient, and it's implication for our health and our waistlines. HFCS is ubiquitous these days, found in everything from soda to 'healthy' yogurt products. It's being blamed for rising rates of obesity by researchers and nutritionists, with the industry fighting back with some fairly lame commercials.
We will divide this answer into three segments. The first segment will an explanation of what HFCS is. The second segment will be political. The third we will explore societal and commercial reasons. I will then conclude with my little Nutritionist rant that will hopefully prove to be more than a little entertaining. Enjoy, and keep the topic suggestions coming.
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup?
HFCS is sugar. Well, maybe not exactly what we think of as sugar - that white grainy stuff that (hopefully) comes from cane (and not GMO beets... but I won't go off on a tangent) and that we put into our favorite batches of cookies. HFCS is corn sugar that is extracted from kernals of corn in which sugar and starches naturally occur. You surely remember biting into an ear of buttery, sweet goodness in the summertime. Banish all thoughts of sweet delicious goodness. The majority of this sugar comes from GMO corn of a type that you wouldn't think of buttering up and sinking your teeth into. This corn comes from depleted soils, is covered in pesticides and is not sweet at all in flavor. If you think I'm being dramatic, you can yourself sneak into a Midwest field late at night and steal an ear or two. Yuck. Not like I've done this before or anything...
The starchy corn they (Cargill to be exact, but not to name names) turn into HFCS by exposing the corn's starches to specific enzymes which change them into a fructose product. The fructose is then mixed with glucose to produce HFCS with differing percentages of these two sugars: glucose and fructose. In nature, glucose and fructose exist together in varying amounts, but glucose almost always outnumbers fructose molecules in things like apples or oranges. Fructose is so named because it is the sugar that is found in many fruits. So if it is found in fruits, then why is it so bad? And why do companies want fructose and not glucose? Why don't they produce High Glucose Corn Syrup?
First of all, fructose itself never killed anyone. However, we must consider that fructose is never found in such high ratios with glucose in naturally sweet fruits. Secondly, fructose tastes much sweeter to our tongues than glucose does, so fructose is a more potent sugar to our senses. Thirdly, fructose does not go directly into our bloodstream as sugar, it must first pass through the liver and then be converted to glucose. Some fructose is converted directly to fat. This my friends, is the big sticking point for many health researchers. Obesity is pandemic in the USA... is it due to the amount we eat, the sugar we're consuming which gives us extra calories, or the type of sugar we choose to consume? The answer may lie in all of the above.
In the USA, our government decided long ago that in order to secure our nation's food supply (which was subject to all kinds of price variability from weather and other factors) they would offer something to farmers called subsidies. These subsidies are payments from the government which assure that farmers have a reason to get out on the plows every year. Subsidies make sure that farmers make enough money to stay in business - no matter what. The higher your yield from a crop of wheat, corn, etc. the more money you make In this way subsidies also act as incentives to produce more (thus securing a steady and abundant food supply). These subsidies mean that farmers who choose to produce the cereal grains, wheat, corn and soybeans among others, that these subsidies cover will be rewarded with job security, a steady income, and an incentive to intensively farm the land to squeeze out as high a yield as possible from the tired and depleted soil. With the help of pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified seeds, huge machinery and acres upon acres of land, farmers in the US produce more wheat and corn than you can shake a stick at. A large portion of these crops are fed directly to cattle and other livestock to fatten them up properly (even though cows aren't suppose to eat corn and get sick when they do.) Even after the corn is thrown at the animals, there is so much left over that we actually have to invent uses for it. Even if we don't eat the corn directly in products - which we do anyway in large amounts, we end up eating it in some form in corn starch or a hundred other strange and non-corn-like sounding compounds which invade our processed foods.
This is how you make gold from garbage. You take a product, process it, and then sell it for more than you could have sold it in its original form. This is what has happened with High Fructose Corn Syrup. We've made something desirable (sugar) from something unexciting and absolutely worthless because we have so much of it.
Why do we put it in everything?
Well, why do we put sugar in everything to begin with? Sugar makes things sweeter, more desirable (from an evolutionary standpoint, humans with access to more carbohydrates for energy have stamina for the big hunt) and makes us want to eat more of it. This is great for companies who want you to like their product and, naturally, eat more of it. These days it seems that everything we eat is sweet. Our tastebuds have gotten used to all kinds of extreme firework displays of salt and sugar on our palate - so that when we taste something naturally sweet such as plain rice, we don't taste the sweetness at all. The more we deafen our tastebuds, the more sugar is required to tell us "this is sweet".
We have gotten used to processed foods where sugar is added in large quantities to give the food flavor. Because the actual food itself is of low quality and not fresh, it doesn't have much flavor. To solve this, we add salt and sugar. Sugar also acts as a preservative in foods so that it has a longer shelf life. Sugar is a substance which is 'hydrophilic' or 'water-loving' meaning that it steals the water that bacteria and molds would use to grow and proliferate. So why do food industries use HFCS instead of sugar? Simple answer: it's cheaper. And as mentioned in the first part, it's also more bang for their buck because it's sweeter.
A dear friend of mine from Russia was telling me how much she missed her beloved Russian rye bread and how she couldn't find anything comparable to it here in the states in regular stores. She asked me, perplexed, "why is all the bread here sweet? Bread isn't supposed to be sweet!" Sure enough, when you look at every single loaf of bread in the supermarkets you'll see HFCS listed on the label.
The question comes down to "Would you eat this? Why or why not?" In my personal and professional opinion, HFCS is in theory unappealing and in reality very much so. Have you ever seen HFCS sold in bottles in stores? There is a reason for that... because it's disgusting. It is a sloppy grey mess which I've heard doesn't smell very good. I have an obvious bias against it because it's what I call 'industrial food' and it won't enter into my diet because I don't eat processed foods very often. When I make cookies, I use minimally processed cane sugar. When I want to sweeten my plain yogurt, I use honey or agave nectar. You don't see me dumping mono and di-glycerides into my bread when I make a loaf - why would I use industrial additives in my foods? Where the heck would I get them if I wanted them? If it doesn't naturally occur in nature... if I can't make it myself in my kitchen, then no thank you.
Us human beings are always thinking we can somehow improve upon mother nature. We think we can make food in ways that mother nature can't, and then sell them to each other to make money and in the meantime keep us fed and healthy. Well, we can't. There is a reason that human beings have evolved as they have over time, in genetic harmony with nature. We eat nature's foods, our genes and our bodies respond the way we should because we're part of that nature we're consuming. Our bodies don't like industrial food... just like cows eat grass, not GMO corn... and we get sick and obese and cows get sick and fat. We just give the cows antibiotics and then enjoy their well-marbled meat. We also get antibiotics and then have to shop in the Plus Size section in Wal-Mart. You can't fool nature.