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.”
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.