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Mythbusting High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

When I go to the USA, I eat sweets and drink fizzy drinks that are made with High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) instead of sugar. I’ve always felt that this is a guilty pleasure (moreso than the UK equivalent) because of this special ingredient. But after telling people scary things about HFCS that I believed to be facts, I thought it would be worth doing some research… hehe.

What is HFCS - compared to cane sugar?

Cane sugar is mostly sucrose, a compound of glucose and fructose. That means that pairs of glucose and fructose molecules are joined by “linking hands” chemically, making the slightly more complex ‘sucrose’ chemical.

HFCS on the other hand is a mixture of free glucose and free fructose, usually in a mix where 42% or 55% is fructose. In HFCS, the chemicals are in mixture with each other, not joined by a chemical bond.

Is HFCS illegal in the EU and UK?

In the EU, HFCS is known as “Fructose-Glucose Syrup” (FGS) when the fructose content in mixture is more than 50%. When fructose is in the minority it is “Glucose-Fructose Syrup” (GFS).

HFCS is not illegal or banned in the EU, but until 2017, production was capped by a quota.

This is in contrast to the USA where corn production and processing runs riot because corn growers are subsidized by the government to the tune of at least $5 billion a year, which works out at $1.95/bushel (£0.08/kg). So a stack of tortillas is cheap, but there is such an abundance of corn that you have to find other things to do with it - like making a sugar alternative.

The production cap was removed partly so that the EU could reduce its import of sugars and become an even more prominent exporter.

So why isn’t it used in EU soft drinks?

For soft drinks, manufacturers use HFCS 55 - that is, FGS - and there simply isn’t enough of it in the EU, perhaps because of the previous production caps.

I would venture that FGS and GFS have a bad reputation in the UK and Europe compared to “real” sugar. Plus, laws like the UK’s 2016 “Sugary drink tax” mean that sugars in general are not in vogue as soft drink ingredients, and most soft drinks have been reformulated with Aspartame, Acesulfame K, Sucralose, and Stevia, in order to avoid the tax… whatever you think of that.

Is HFCS quicker to absorb in the gut, and therefore more harmful than sugar?

Maybe, maybe not.

According to some academic summaries, the fact that HFCS is a mixture rather than a compound doesn’t change the way the gut processes it:

“Since then, a broad scientific consensus has emerged that there are no metabolic or endocrine response differences between HFCS and sucrose related to obesity or any other adverse health outcome. This equivalence is not surprising given that both of these sugars contain approximately equal amounts of fructose and glucose, contain the same number of calories, possess the same level of sweetness, and are absorbed identically through the gastrointestinal tract.”

(from Sucrose, High-Fructose Corn Syrup, and Fructose, Their Metabolism and Potential Health Effects: What Do We Really Know?, emphasis my own)

Add onto this the fact that most brown sugars which are perceived by some people (Hi Mum) as “more natural” are actually synthesised from white sugar (sucrose) by adding invert syrup (a different glucose/fructose mix) and molasses (a form of sucrose). This is much in the same way that whole milk is made from skimmed milk by reintroducing fat… food factories tend to create a “lowest common denominator” method of manufacture.

On the other hand, this 2012 paper suggests that certain body responses like systolic blood pressure might be elevated by the more “bioavailable” glucose right after drinking a large (680ml) HFCS-sweetened drink:

“Compared with sucrose, HFCS leads to greater fructose systemic exposure and significantly different acute metabolic effects.”

(From Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose on the pharmacokinetics of fructose and acute metabolic and hemodynamic responses in healthy subjects)

In general, my gut tells me (hehe) that eating more natural, chemically complex foodstuffs, and fewer highly-processed foods, is probably better for proper functioning of the human body.