HFCS or Any Other Name

This is a guest blog post by Kiyah Duffey, PhD.

In a petition to the FDA last September, the Corn Refiners Association urged the regulatory agency to consider an alternative name for use on product labels: allowing the use of “corn sugar”, it argued, as opposed to HFCS would help consumers understand that it [HFCS] is “simply a sugar made from corn.”

Yeah, right.

Let’s be honest. Call it high fructose corn syrup, call it corn syrup, call it an amazing sweetener that makes your coke delicious and cost just pennies to make; I call it unnecessary and worth avoiding. So do several consumer groups including the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League who said:

“Permitting HFCS to be called ‘corn sugar’ would allow manufacturers to conceal this ingredient from consumers…HFCS has been the name of this ingredient since the FDA’s original GRAS [generally recognized as safe] affirmation regulation in 1983.”


In the field of nutrition and obesity research, HFCS was plunged into the spotlight in 2004 for its hypothesized role as a potential contributor to the obesity epidemic. According a study using nationally representative data, HFCS consumption increased 1000% between 1970 and 1990 and in 2000 accounted for > 40% of caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages.

In the decades since those early articles were published the scientific community seems to be in agreement: HFCS does not uniquely contribute to weight gain and obesity independent of its association with the consumption of high sugar, high fat, and highly energy dense foods. But that doesn’t mean that it’s off the hook, at least not in my book.

And the FDA seems to agree: it is expected to take up to 2 years to decide whether to allow food manufacturers to change HFCS to corn sugar on ingredient labels.

Here’s the thing about HFCS, regardless of whether it has any independent association with weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or any other chronic disease one could think of, the very presence of this ingredient is a talisman of (to borrow a term from Michael Pollan) a “food item” — something that looks like food, something that companies want us to think is food, but which is in fact a creation of science.  We, the consumer, know of course to look for it in things like soda (although even this is changing) and flavored fruit beverages, but HFCS is sneaky, and can be found in some unexpected products ranging from soup to salad dressing, crackers to bread. What’s more, it is usually found alongside a list of at least a half a dozen or more ingredients that the average person cannot pronounce and can only guess at their origin and purpose. In short, it should provide one very clear piece of information to you, the consumer: this is not a real food, and it’s best to avoid it.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you see HFCS in the ingredient list, look closely at what else is listed. Generally, you’ll see a laundry list of additives and preservatives that are probably best to avoid. For many food items, it’s possible to find an alternative that does not have HFCS, but beware that any food with a lot of added sweeteners, of any kind, should be consumed sparingly- especially if you’re looking to keep your waistline trim.

Kiyah Duffey, PhD. conducts nutrition and obesity research at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.

She writes about food, family, and parenting as a full-time working mom at ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com and knownutrition.org.

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  • Jim

    You went off the rails when you called it a “food item.” It is biochemically identical to ordinary sugar and is simply glucose and fructose, much as table sugar is. You say there are no studies linking it with obesity(true) but that’snot good enough in your book? Do you have additional studies, or are you spreading unnecessary FUD? Lots of bakers prefer HFCS because as a syrup it is easier to manage in bakery than granular sugar. That does not make it bad. Stick to actual research.

  • Mr. Bob

    Let them change it. The goal should be to reduce ALL sugar consumption, particularly added sugar. Changing the name to corn sugar should not impact that goal. In fact, it may strengthen it.

    HFCS has been demonized to a point that many people, I believe, don’t realize that all added sugar should be avoided. They simply look at a product w/o HFCS as being healthier than one with the same amount of sugar with HFCS. This is evident by the myriad products now advertising their lack of HFCS.

    Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar would put it on the same level as all added sugar. A level playing field would allow for an easier assault on all added sugar.

    So, I say let them change it. All of the groups that oppose the name change should switch their stance. That would really throw the industry for a loop. All the money saved on the lobbying battle could then be shifted to an education campaign.

    • Guest

      Mr. Bob, your comment made me wonder if food labels should have a line something like:
      Sweetened by additional: cane sugar/refined corn sugar/brown rice syrup etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenleebow Ken Leebow

    Got to agree with Bob and Jim on this one.

    Bottom line, whether it’s HFCS or cane sugar, the average American is consuming too much of it.

    Candidly, what’s really being concealed is trans fats. Most labels state zero trans fats when, in fact, it has trans fats. Now, we have to read the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated”.

    Bottom line: If you want to stay out of the “Circle of Disease”:

    Fast Food
    Junk Food
    Processed Food
    Sugar, Soda, Candy


    Ken Leebow

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    This is why I keep the rule of not eating foods that have a laundry list of items. Companies can get away with changing names and hiding what it is. Plus a lot of this stuff is still pretty new. I don’t want to be the guinea pig for it. Let them use their own kids for that.

  • http://www.foodieformerlyfat.com Foodie, Formerly Fat

    Have you seen those TV commercials that show a couple having a picnic and they have a whole conversation about how HFCS is made from corn and isn’t the big evil so many people are trying to make it out to be. It disgusts me. Our babysitter is 20 years old and was totally confused by the commercial. I had to sit an explain to her why HFCS is bad for you and why they are trying to convince people that it’s not. It was a long involved conversation involving everything from body chemistry to macro-economics. People who think food is just about food need an education.

    And yes, there is too much sugar consumed in all it’s various forms. But I’ll take mineral and nutrient rich pure maple syrup as a sweetener over highly processed nutritionally vacant HFCS any day.

    • Joshh

      “People who think food is just about food need an education.”….. nice thought.

      In today’s time, it seems that food is all about $$ and that’s all without any regard to the consumer.

  • Seweccentric

    It’s NOT the same as sugar, it’s much harder on the liver to process than plain sucrose and/or glucose. I have lost 25 lbs (over 6 months) since I removed it from my diet. You can try it YOURSELF and see how (if?) it is affects you. All my pre-diabetic symptoms are gone (polydipsia, blurriness, acanthosis nigricans). It’s very easy to find Coke made with sugar where I live. HFCS is even in most brands of cough syrup.

    • Mr. Bob

      I can’t argue with the fact that you lost weight after cutting out HFCS.

      However, it is still true that the body doesn’t care where the fructose comes from. Be it honey (55% fructose), agave syrup (92% fructose), table sugar (quickly digested to 50% fructose) or HFCS (42%, 55% or 90% fructose). And let’s not get started with fructose in fruits. It is all treated the same once it passes the gums.

      My point is that by focusing just on HFCS, we are missing the real issue: added sugar. The manufactures are already moving to other non-HFCS sweeteners and charging more for it. They are playing a new game, and we are still trying to play the old one.

  • Tbaird007

    The argument that HFCS and sugar are the same misses much of the point here.

    So the science hasn’t yet shown that HFCS contributes negatively to health outcomes any more so than sugar does… that isn’t proof that it doesn’t. Hell, perhaps it’s better for you. We don’t know yet. One thing we do know for sure… it’s ridiculously cheap – despite its elaborate processing. This is why food companies use it and why they want to continue to use it. Ultimately it has become a shibboleth that communicates directly to consumers that the makers of a food containing HFCS are striving to make the food cheaply (and HFCS is generally not the only cheap ingredient in the item). Consumers have begun to appreciate this connection and it must be hurting the cheap food industry – or they wouldn’t be challenging it. So they’re now responding by seeking to undermine or circumvent this connection that consumers have made. This is a deceptive, smoke and mirrors that reveals much about the people who are trying to get us to eat their products.

    In the end – I’m on board if we change it to “cheap sugar” or “junk food sugar”, instead of corn sugar.

  • Gerome

    Do Coke and Pepsi drinkers read nutrition labels? Do they care? Will a name change affect behavior? I say “no” to all three. HFCS is not a culprit. (Sorry Seweccentric, show the research, not personal anecdotes.) The price is the culprit. Coke is cheap, and all those other products that Tbaird mentioned are cheap too. Taste, price, convenience. Everyone here should know that’s what drives food habits. I don’t care what it’s called. Tax the hell out of it though — or drop the corn subsidy. (Sorry, I know, you spit your coffee on the monitor.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/paula.jakobs Paula Jakobs

    Have you seen the saturday night live skit poking fun at those hfcf ads?

  • Stephanie A Dunn

    I looked at some juice today that said all natural flavors and then the second ingredient is HFCs……is HFCs considered natural flavor now?