To Corn or Not to Corn: Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Really Bad?

by Jeff Berkowitz on May 24, 2010 · 8 comments

in Culinary Philosopher News

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There are some big name, well respected experts out there; some of them are Medical Doctors who say that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is one of the worst substances on the planet. It is being blamed by some for the obese state of  too many Americans. There are well documented studies that show that HFSC contributes to obesity, insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes), pancreatitis, intestinal bloating, flatulence, fatty deposits in the liver and gout.  At the same time the industry that produces HFCS is saying exactly the opposite and they have research to back up what they are saying too. Hmmm…so what should I say about it…moreover, what should I do about it? HFCS is in almost every food, even some minimally processed foods like bread. As I get older and health insurance gets more and more expensive and my expenses for co-pays and medicine get higher and higher I need to make a decision; whom do I believe? I will tell you what I know to be true, an anecdote or two and then my friends, I am afraid you too will have to decide to use corn or not to use corn. That is the question…

A few years ago (more than I care to report) I had to work late. I figured that in order to stay awake I would have a cola and then I would make the half hour drive home. Fifteen minutes from home I got extremely tired. Was it the long hours? Poor diet? Lack of sleep? Maybe. At that time I decided to eliminate soda of all kinds from my diet and for the most part I have done exactly that. At almost the same time I was working out at the gym several times a week, and like most of us I was bombarded by ads for supplements to make my workouts more effective and the results more impressive…I bought an energy drink that contained pure crystalline fructose with the promise that it would give me more energy to do my exercises harder and longer. I found that even though I sipped these drinks throughout my workout I felt drained, exhausted and with less energy than if I had just sipped water and this stuff was not cheap. My conclusion at the time was that I just could not handle the sugar and I sought to greatly reduce the amount of sugar in my diet. That kept me on a pretty even keel enabling me to work for long hours as a chef (as many as 20 hours on rare occasions) without feeling exhausted. These are just two little stories about my personal experience and are not scientific evidence of anything, take them for what they are worth. On to what I found out about sugar and HFCS and hopefully some sane advice…

Fructose can be found in nature in a lot of places, and without boring you with a long chemistry lesson, fructose is a simple sugar. I am sure you have heard of glucose? Well fructose is a simple sugar like glucose, only fructose can’t be used by the body as it is; it has to be processed in the liver. Table sugar is a disaccharide made up of a glucose and a fructose bonded together and I am sure you might realize that fruit has fructose, even honey has fructose in it. It is in almost everything we use to make our food sweet even before any companies put it there. Nature is conspiring against us! I know what you are thinking…But what about HFSC?…

HFCS is manufactured from corn…well manufactured is not exactly the right word. HFCS is refined from corn. The process involves several mechanical steps and a few chemical or enzymatic steps. Here is where I have an objection to the process of most of the HFCS produced in the United States; the enzymes involve Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) to speed up the process. That is even if the corn itself is non-GMO. My biggest problem with GMO’s is that there are studies in which mice are fed a diet high in GMO’s and in three generations they are unable to reproduce. The possibility that this could happen to humans or any non-lab animal is enough for me to decide against GMO’s, even if the chances are small. It seems just as with the extraction of good quality oil from corn which requires several chemical processes, getting HFCS from corn is also difficult. Why is it cheaper than sugar?

Corn syrup and HFCS was cheaper than sugar because our government was mad at a few sugar producing nations so they put huge tariffs on imported cane sugar and gave subsidies to farmers to produce corn. Those subsidies were the only thing keeping some farms going at times and they made some of the large farming organizations very rich. Ah, follow the money…that always works when you want to find out why something is happening. So we had cheap HFCS and most if not all of the major food manufacturers jumped on the high profit band wagon. The funny thing is that since the government started subsidizing ethanol from corn, HFCS is now more expensive than sugar and a lot of companies are going back to sugar (sucrose) either because of the price or because public opinion, not to mention Dr. Oz’s opinion, is that HFCS is bad for you. We even found Coke in glass bottles made with real sugar…naturally we bought some, and guess what…I had one…and, you guessed it…I did not get sleepy…in fact, I found it quite invigorating for a few hours.

What about the farmers who are still being paid to grow corn? Do you remember the stories in grade school about the Native Americans teaching the Pilgrims how to grow corn? The story, as it was conveyed to us, was that a fish had to be planted with each stalk of corn to make it grow well. Corn is a greedy plant! It needs a lot of nitrogen and a lot of water. It is not good for any of our cattle to eat (cows, and sheep should eat grass). Most of us realize that corn does not digest well in humans either. There are stories about the early Europeans starving to death when corn was introduced as a staple food source because the nutrients in corn are unavailable without a caustic. Now that some number crunchers have had time to look at corn ethanol they say that it costs more petroleum to produce it than it replaces as a fuel. It just does not seem worth it, but as far as I know the farmers are still getting the subsidies…

So…what to do?…I can sum it up pretty succinctly. I don’t think you are going to be surprised by my advice, but I am gratified that you got this far. Sugar in any form is an empty calorie. We should all limit our sugar no matter what the source. HFCS is not a good food source not only because there may be health risks, but because corn is an unsustainable crop. HFCS uses GMO’s in its production which is further evidence that we should eliminate it from our diets. Corn is not a good food source for humans or farm animals. We should be eating foods that we are designed to eat and we should feed our food animals in a similar fashion. Ultimately, food manufacturers and farmers need to make a profit. If we choose not to eat corn products and prepared foods that contain them they will stop producing them. You can bet that if we reject these ersatz products and they wind up in the land fill better quality products will become more available. The goal of this blog is to make everyone comfortable with making food themselves without relying on prepared food as much. We will all be healthier and have fewer health issues in the long run which makes me wonder…why are we growing corn?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 dogs eating grass May 18, 2012 at 1:40 am

Great post!Thanks for the effort,you took to expand upon this post so throughly i will definitely keep it in my RSS.I look forward to your future post.Dogs eating grass

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2 CCF May 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

I can’t speak to your personal sugar experiments, but I can look at science. Scientific evidence supports the fact that the two sweeteners are handled the same by the human body. In fact, it only took a few hours for nutrition experts to question the findings of the Princeton study which “compared” high fructose corn syrup to table sugar. Even noted nutritionist Marion Nestle wrote: “I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats. I’m afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one. So does HFCS make rats fat? Sure if you feed them too many calories altogether. Sucrose will do that too.”

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3 Jeff Berkowitz May 26, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Right, as I mentioned in my post it was less of an experiment and more an observation about how my body reacts to certain sugar, very personal and very unscientific. I am in favor of eating small amounts of sugar of any kind, honey, organic, sucrose, fruit…it is all sugar and most people can not eat large amounts of it without deleterious effects. The more I look at it the more I realize corn is not a good agricultural product and does not fit in with my philosophy of life. I welcome you to read the other posts in my blog to see that I am a friend to farmers and I don’t have a problem with big business when it makes good decisions. Long-term sustainability is extremely important and corn does not have it…but sugar is sugar. BTW I personally love supersweet varieties of corn grown locally (New Jersey) cooked fresh just hours from harvest and cooked over a natural wood fire and intend to eat my share this summer…ENJOY!

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4 Michael May 26, 2010 at 7:12 am

@ Jeff & Kelsey
There little difference in HFCS and Sucrose, other than the fact that the body has to break sucrose into Fructose and Glucose before use, and HFCS is already broken into Fructose and Glucose.

Farming on the other hand is a big difference. I have worked over 12 years in agricultural research in the nineties. I have a degree in Entomology and researched Pesticides, Fungicides and Fertilizers. I worked in CO, CA and PA. In CO there are farmers that owned 100’s of acres, planted nothing but feed corn, and were nearly broke all the time. In CA, farmers grow anything BUT corn. Any vegetable you care to name (they have the same problems with water management as in CO). In CO they wore Lee jeans and drove nearly broken down Fords. In CA the foremen(the farmers don’t actually do work, they hire folks for that) wear LLBean and drive new Dodge Rams.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that the subsidies are hurting not helping. If you could make money off of feed corn, why don’t the PA Amish grow it? I’ve never known a Dutchman to turn his nose up at the chance to make money off of the English(thats what they call us). They grow some corn, but only Sweet Corn. These days they don’t sell veggies at roadside stands, they go to auction and sell to the highest bidder from Pittsburgh and Philly for the groceries and fancy restaurants.

Mike

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5 Ban HFCS May 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Good write-up.

BTW, you might have fructose malabsorption or something similar. (I say that because of the tiredness you mentioned after consuming fructose-laden beverages.)

Like you, I also have an anecdote about HFCS: in my case, i would get ill a half dozen or so times a month; no doctor could figure out why. They suggested it was a food allergy. Twenty years later I was reading an article about HFCS and came across a description of the symptoms of fructose malabsorption, which sounded eerily similar to my illnesses. Subsequently, I began reading up on (1) what foods contain HFCS and how to avoid it, (2) what foods contain large quantities of fructose (even naturally occurring.) The really terrific outcome was that i stopped getting ill. Just like that. After twenty years of major intestinal discomfort on a regular basis, it all stopped.

anyway, nice overview of the topic!

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6 Michael May 24, 2010 at 11:09 am

Corn is good food… once you add, salt, pepper, butter, paprika, etc…

Remember, you only borrow corn.

Thanks Jeff

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7 Kelsey May 24, 2010 at 11:08 am

Jeff, Let me help you debunk some of the myths you state in this post and lead you to some factual sites for more information. I understand a lot of this is you venting about your personal frustrations, but for your readers, it’s important to see both sides of the story.

First, I am a family farmer and work in the commodity business industry. Daily, I communicate with corn farmers on how they are producing food for people and livestock. I also work with professionals in the industry…which include dieticians…for the health of the consumers.
So to address HFCS first, it is being blamed for obesity, yes. But so is sugar! Nutritionally, HFCS (which I will call corn sugar) are the exact same. They have the same number of calories, is handled by the body the same as sugar and is naturally made from corn just as sugar is naturally made from cane. Corn sugar is fine in moderation…but it is people (not the industry) that are abusing the system by consuming too much…no one ever said, “Eat more corn sugar…it’s good for you!” Because of modern agriculture, we are able to provide food for you year round because of the use of corn as a sweetener, starch, preservative and meal. You say, “HFCS is refined from corn” but sugar is REFINED from cane…both naturally grown plants. Corn sugar is cheaper than sugar because most all of the cane that is grown to make sugar is grown in Brazil and similar countries that have the climate to raise it. Thus, importing it in causes the price to increase.

The very fact that you attest to studies negating the effects of corn sugar validates that you do not grasp the research that has been conducted; such as the comprehensive scientific review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, refuting a unique link between obesity and high fructose corn syrup. Or the peer-reviewed study, published in the March 2010 issue of Nutrition and Metabolism, challenging the science used to demonize fructose, whether consumed from fruit or high fructose corn syrup. There are several studies and national organizations that can back this up:
–High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements for use of the term “natural.”
–“Because the composition of high fructose corn syrup and sucrose are so similar, it appears unlikely that high fructose corn syrup contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose.” American Medical Association
–“Both sweeteners contain the same number of calories (4 per gram) and consist of equal parts of fructose and glucose. Once absorbed into the blood stream, the two sweeteners are indistinguishable.” American Dietetic Association
–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.
–“To pretend that a product sweetened with sugar is healthier than a product sweetened by high fructose corn syrup is totally misguided.” Michael Jacobson Ph.D., Center for Science in the Public Interest
–“The decision to switch from HFCS to cane sugar is 100% marketing and 0% science.” David Ludwig, Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Program, Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts

–“This is a marketing issue, not a metabolic issue. David Klurfeld, Ph.D., USDA Agricultural Research Service
I think your point about government subsidies has no point to the rest of your story, but because of these subsidies, you are able to afford food. Did you know that an average American spends 10% of their income on their food budget, (which is the lowest in the world) and other countries, like China, spend over 30-40% of their income on food!? This is because U.S. farmers are producing more food, on less land, with fewer inputs every year and subsidies allow for prices to remain reasonable…this argument could go on, but I’ll stick with corn sugar today.
I certainly appreciate your personal food choices, but do not appreciate you attacking an industry you seem to not know much about. If you ate today, you can thank a farmer and be thankful you live in a country where food is available to you so readily. We have food choices for a reason…if you choose to go organic, that is your personal choice. But not everyone can afford it because of the high production costs of producing organic food. Modern food production allows for food to be raised to feed not only U.S. consumers and livestock at an affordable price…but as well as producing enough to export to countries to feed the hungry. Corn is not only a human food, but over 50% of the corn grown goes to feed livestock. Because of this, corn provides human with a protein source as well. I hope this answers your last question, as to why we raise corn.

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8 Jeff Berkowitz May 25, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Kelsey,
Thank you for your comments, I certainly welcome discourse from all sides. However, clearly you did not read or comprehend my post and you certainly failed to understand what my blog is about. My blog is a celebration of the bounty nature provides us with through the actions of farmers and I am thankful for the fine people who do that work everyday. I apologize for not informing you of my food chemistry background or the fact that I work as a R&D Chef for a food manufacturer, so if you want to mince words about “natural” food I will be more than happy to discuss how disappointing and misleading the pitiful FDA guidelines for the term are. I pointed out several times that HFCS has many things in common with sucrose (table sugar), and I even suggested that consumption of too much of any sugar is bad for most people. I did not mention that: the Smithsonian calls corn the greediest plant under cultivation and that it takes more water and fertilizer to grow corn than any other food crop, that Scientific American has blamed corn for necessitating the use of petrochemicals and ammoniumnitrate (usually used in explosives) used as fertilizer for poisoning lakes, rivers, ground water and the Gulf of Mexico with excess nitrogen causing algal blooms that kill fish en mass. Finally, you assert that corn is good food for humans and livestock: it is found in pet food, but Veterinarians suggest grain free diets for cats and dogs because grain is not their natural food, cows are supposed to eat grass, horses are supposed to eat grass, sheep are supposed to eat grass and humans are supposed to eat meat, fish and vegetables that are not sprayed with poison.
It seems the only reason for growing corn is because commodity traders can make huge amounts of money doing so. I have more to say about the use of corn derived products if you care to test me. I do have a question for you…would you defend corn with such vehemence if it were not for the Corn Subsidy which put $53,000,000,000, that’s right 53 Billion dollars, with a “B”, over the last 10 years in the pockets of large corporate “farmers” (because you know the little family owned farm did not get their share)?

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