High Fructose Corn Syrup is considered one of the biggest villains of health minded consumers. Nutrition-focused parents will go out of their way to buy products sans HFCS. Here at Fooducate, we bear no positive sentiment for this wunderkind of the food industry, but not because it’s a supposed poison. Americans simply consume too much sweet, whether it is table sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
Cane sugar has been around for thousands of years. But it only became de riguer in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The demand was so high that many equatorial countries were colonized to set up sugar plantations. Slave labor and indentured serfs were brought in, and sugar was sent back to factories in newly industrialized England, for workers to mix into their tea during breaks.
By the mid-twentieth century, political instability in many of the former colonies (along with unpredictable weather) led to high fluctuations in the price of cane sugar. This became problematic to the American food industry, which was undergoing major shifts in the 1950s and ’60s: Women entering the workforce, TV, and a prosperity like never before led to a new culinary culture of fast food restaurants and TV dinners. Carbonated soft drinks were so cheap that they transformed from a rare treat to a routine hydration choice.
To make sure the prices remained low, the food industry needed cheaper raw materials. Corn crop surpluses led to the development of techniques of creating sweeteners from the corn starch, and by the 1970′s, high fructose corn syrup was available for mass use by the industry.
At the time of its introduction, high fructose corn syrup was about half the price of cane sugar, but prices have fluctuated over the years and sometimes were even at parity.
High Fructose Corn Syrup today
In recent years, HFCS has usually been 20% cheaper than cane sugar. Is it worth all the consumer backlash to save 20%? For some manufactures and brands the answer is yes. But there is another reason the food industry loves to use HFCS instead of sugar: lower manufacturing costs.
From a production perspective, HFCS saves time and labor. As a liquid, it can be pumped out of containers on trucks straight into a manufacturing facility’s holding tanks. Sugar needs to be packed on pallets, then offloaded from the truck with a forklift, then each of the 50 lb. sacks unloaded from the pallets to be used in food preparation. If the end product is a liquid (such as soda), an extra step of dissolving the sugar in water is required. Heated water dissolves the sugar much faster, but that requires more energy input. Bottom line: HFCS saves money.
HFCS also boasts a bushel of functional benefits for the food industry:
- Browning – the fructose in HFCS improves the browning results of baked goods, when compared to table sugar.
- Moisture – HFCS binds with water molecules and can retain the moisture of chewy granola bars, for example.
- Shelf life – because water molecules bind with HFCS, they are not available for mold to develop on.
- No crystallization – When sugar is used to bake cookies, it will crystallize and form a snappy texture. HFCS eliminates that.
There you have it. While many consumers are demanding a return to table sugar, some manufacturers see sweeter benefits from continuing to use HFCS.
1. The Corn Refiners Association
2. John S. White, Ph.D., President, White Technical Research
3. FDA, USDA websites