high fructose corn syrup: what it is, what it isn’t, and how it affects the body

high fructose corn syrup

Our bodies love the sweet stuff. We can’t really help it – it’s a leftover survival strategy from our more primitive days. If something was sweet, it was most likely safe [there is a minimal number things that are both toxic and sweet] and high in calories which was very important before the rise of modern agriculture.

However, our weakness is being prayed upon by food manufacturers. They know what sells and consumers can’t help but eat it up.

It all links back to insulin which is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps the body absorb carbohydrates, i.e. glucose, for energy. If the body does not need any more energy, the glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen, i.e. chains of glucose. An excess of glycogen will be stored as fat. The more we eat, the more insulin and glycogen is produced. When there is more insulin in the blood, our bodies are driven to consume more. If insulin in constantly streaming through the body, a person can become insulin resistant and the effect of leptin, the satiety hormone, is suppressed. This means that we want to eat more – even if we aren’t hungry or we don’t need any more energy.

People eating when they’re not even hungry or don’t need anymore energy is a food manufacturers dream because it encourages continuous consumption beyond what our body needs to stay healthy and functional.

Increasing the sweetness of foods with ‘real’ sugar is expensive and dependent on imports from southern economies that are often volatile due to political, economic, or natural environments. Such insecurities prompted the development of sweeteners sourced from crops that could be grown in northern climates. Corn was an optimal choice.

It was in the 1970s that high fructose corn syrup [HFCS] first entered the scene. Since it was cheaper and easier to produce, manufacturers were quick to integrate it into a wide range of their products. Likewise, HFCS was less reactive in highly acidic environments [like cola], which allows for a more stable shelf-life and limited change in flavor.

Per capita daily caloric intake of fructose-containing sweeteners, 1970–2005

However, high fructose corn syrup is not actually that different than cane or beet root sugar. In reality, there is a general consensus that there are no metabolic or endocrine response differences between high fructose corn syrup and sucrose related to obesity or any other adverse health outcome. Moreover, each type of sugar is highly processed and has a concentrated sweetness that compels us to consume more of it.

The only major difference is that in high fructose corn syrup, the chemical bond between fructose and and glucose has been hydrolyzed, i.e. the proteins have been broken into amino acids. Likewise, high fructose corn syrup is cheaper to produce, especially in the United States where large amounts of taxpayer money subsidizes industrial [corporate] corn production.

Due to cost factors and the general understanding that sweeter foods encourage more consumption, the use of HFCS has become pervasive with very few processed foods being free of it, albeit focus has shifted towards non-calorie sweeteners in an effort to “combat obesity”.

In the end, adding sweeteners to foods to improve their flavor is a historically a common practice because it appeals to our innate appreciation for sweet foods. However, the lower cost of high fructose corn syrup makes it easier to add to even more products and the more sweetness that we consume, the more we crave. Thus, the amount of added sugars in foods keeps us ‘addicted’ to unhealthy foods.

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