Ascertaining the bad guys: High Fructose Corn Syrup

I’m not the first or only one to note the terribleness of ol’ HFCS, but I figured to not feature it here in all its infamous counter-glory wouldn’t make much sense. Especially considering, in my view, that most people are disposed to simply compare it to sugar and say “Well, it’s not that bad…” (which, even if HFCS was; sugar is bad.) or worse, be fooled by commercials sponsored by the corn industry touting the supposed healthfulness of the gloppy stuff “in moderation.”

So, why is high fructose corn syrup bad?

Well, there’re a number of reasons. I guess the best place to start would be where the substance itself starts, i.e. the processes and chemicals used to extract it from corn. The corn is first made into corn starch (itself not an innocuous substance), and then treated to a hot bath of chemical lime water and genetically modified alpha-amylase for 3 hours or so. Alpha-amylase is an enzyme that breaks the bonds between glucose monomers in starch; in non-nerd-speak, that means it splits the chemical bond in cornstarch, creating shorter chains of sugars i.e simple sugars/high-GI carbs. The reason the alpha-amylase has to be genetically altered is that in its natural state, the enzyme does poorly in the temperatures (190-330 degrees Fahrenheit) required to make it through the first stage and get the soon-to-be syrup to its liquefied starch stage. Still with me? Still sound like something you want in your system? Movin’ on.. (By the way, hate to stay on the subject of alpha-amylase’s genetic modifications, but it is of note that in some of these lab tests, the enzymes were cloned into E.coli to be assessed as a possible helper in HFCS production. Citing E.Coli is out-of-context a bit, but figured you’d like to know.)

The “natural sweetener,” as the Corn Refiners’ Association would call it, is then subjected to phase 2: Glucoamylase saccharification. Glucoamylase, another neato enzyme (this one derived from mold; mmm MMM!), is applied to the mixture for a full day to essentially create glucose. This is the part where it really looks delicious, as the little mold nodes float atop the mixing vat! (Scare tactics, anyone?) The final enzyme in the puzzle is called Glucose or Xylose isomerase, and it converts a good amount of the glucose monimers to fructose (This is supposedly within a range of 42-55% fructose, but this study questions if the meager percentage of the much-more body-damaging fructose is really what’s being put in our foods). Also, fun fact about the final enzyme (Glucose isomerase): it’s kind of on the expensive side to produce and use, so instead of being discarded after use like the prior two enzymes, it is used over and over until it loses nearly all its activity. After this there are steps to bring the fructose percentage up to 90% out of part of the mixture, ultimately watering (or glucosing?) it down by mixing it with the original liquid of 42% fructose and 58% glucose until there is a mixture of about 55% fructose to 45% glucose.


All right, so enough of the boring science behind its manufacture; what does this stuff do to a human body? Let me be honest, first of all: “natural” sugar isn’t an answer to the high fructose corn syrup question. “Natural” sugar (I keep quoting natural because the white varieties of sugar in the supermarket are anything but) is very hard on your system; more on that elsewhere. That bit being understood, one could still make a case against high fructose corn syrup in favor of its its “white death” counterpart. Firstly, the presence of such high amounts of fructose (which, with a name like “high fructose corn syrup,” it isn’t keeping any secrets) is more detrimental than even the most refined sucrose (table sugar). Fructose does many things in a human body, none of them particularly good.

While glucose, fructose’s counterpart in high fructose corn syrup, can be metabolized by each and every cell in the body, the only place fructose can be metabolized is in the liver. Not only does the cumulative difference in fructose speed up the fattening and cirrhosis of the liver, something mostly attributed to alcoholics, but the higher levels of ghrelin (the hormone that tells you you’re hungry) produced by fructose-over-glucose consumption increase appetite, and thusly have been implied to increase weight gain. While we’re on that subject:

Leptin resistance

Ghrelin be damned (bet you’ve never heard anyone say that before), even more paramount to weight gain is the leptin resistance caused by high fructose corn syrup. For those of you who aren’t keen on leptin, it is another one of our body’s wonderful hormones (actually a protein) which essentially tells us when we’re full. A 2008 study conducted by the American Physiological Society found that rats fed a steady diet of high fructose vs. another group of the critters fed fructose-free diets initially showed no signs of weight gain during the survey time, but upon being injected with leptin (again, an appetite-curbing protein) the high-fructose rats continued to eat with no restriction while their fructose-free counterparts had the normal, healthy stifled appetite due to the extra leptin in their system. This means the effects of fructose in a person’s diet are more of a silent enemy than a sudden influx of fatty tissue; scary, huh? It has also been surmised that a diet high in fructose, as compared to glucose, results in higher triglyceride levels (should tip off anyone who has been diagnosed with high cholesterol) which impair the transport of leptin across the blood-brain barrier. That also assists in a subject’s obliviousness to his or her “full”ness. Keep eatin’!


So, after all this, do I really need to tell you to take a gander at ingredients labels and make sure this junk isn’t in what you’re purchasing? “Moderation” is fine and dandy, until one considers that this product is stealthily concealed within so many products on the shelves, from breads to yogurt (even baby food). Oh, and keeping you on your toes: The Corn Refiners’ Association is trying to hide high-fructose corn syrup under a new name, “corn sugar.” There’s industry-wide controversy, but keep your eyes peeled and avoid anything touting “corn sugar” in the ingredients labels, as well.

A final note on the “sugar” subject in general: Whether high fructose corn-syrup, table sugar, sugar in the raw, or what-have-you, the bottom line is this: Sugars are the worst non-acute poison you can possibly put into your system. One should ultimately avoid all types of sugars, but if you must “cheat” (believe me, I understand having a sweet tooth), avoiding high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners like sucralose and especially aspartame in lieu of “the real stuff” is a slightly better way to go. Sweet dreams!