The Science of High-fructose Corn Syrup


The increase in conditions such as diabetes and obesity has led to a greater focus on what our food is made of. One of the food types that has been under the greatest spotlight is that of food sweeteners. There is a lot of research and debate on what is healthy and what is not. One of the substances that is frequently mentioned is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It is widely used as a sweetener, and although there’s been a lot of concern about this, the FDA has determined that it is a safe food ingredient.

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History and Use of High-fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

HFCS is a corn starch sweetener that also goes by the names isoglucose, glucose-fructose syrup, and glucose-fructose. It has been produced commercially with the current enzyme process since the late 1960s. It was first marketed by the Clinton Corn Processing Company working with the Japanese Agency of Industrial Science and Technology.

The use of HFCS has risen over the last few decades for a number of reasons. It is easier to handle than granulated sugar, easy to produce, and more cost-effective. HFCS is widely used in soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and other processed foods. Some of the factors that led to the lower price of HFCS compared with sucrose or table sugar include the production subsidies and quotas on U.S. corn. In pancake syrups, HFCS makes for a much cheaper variety compared with maple syrup.

Production Process for HFCS

The process to create HFCS depends on an enzyme-enabled process that was discovered in 1965. The modern-day process involves extracting corn starch from corn using a milling process. The corn starch solution is then acidified in an acid-enzyme process. The goal of this is to break up the starch into smaller carbohydrates. This happens in the presence of a dilute concentration of mercuric chloride to better control the process.

Next, high-temperature enzymes, namely alpha-amylase and glucoamylase, are added to the mixture. These further metabolize the starch into sugars and the sugars into the simple sugars, fructose and glucose. The mixture goes on to be filtered, purified, and demineralized. Another enzyme, xylose isomerase, is added to form a substance with 50-52% glucose and 42% fructose known as HFCS 42. Further purification produced the other formation, HFCS 55. This form is used mainly in soft drinks, while HFCS 42 is widely used in other processed foods.

Research on HFCS and Health Concerns

Before the commercial production of HFCS, many of the processes used to create commercial sugar were neither scalable nor efficient. As a result, there was very little added sugar in most food items. With the growth of the sugar industry, daily sugar intake also increased, and this can be linked to the rise in many dietary and health conditions. In fact, between the years of 1970 and 2000, added sugars in the U.S. increased by 25%.

In terms of nutrients, HFCS contains 76% carbohydrates and 24% water. It does not contain fat, protein, and or any other significant amounts of any essential nutrients. A 100-gram serving gives 281 kilocalories. As of 2015, the national production of HFCS was at 8.5 million tons.

Although many studies and voices have expressed concern over the rising use of HFCS and its tie to metabolic disorders, the evidence has not been substantial. The FDA reconfirmed the safety of this food additive once again in 2014.

There is no denying the health effects of high sugar consumption. From a food science and nutrition perspective, taking in a lot of sugar increases the chances of obesity, heart conditions, and other health complications. Medical experts recommend reducing sugar intake, but this warning relates to all types of sugar and not just HFCS specifically.

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