Corn Syrup’s Sticky Situation

Jan. 14, 2008
High-fructose corn syrup is not bad for you – not that it matters.

Happy 2008. The transition to a new year is a big time for trends. We publish our top new products release (“Why We Love These Products,” Food Processing, November;, we conduct and analyze our annual Manufacturing Trends Survey (“Safety First…But Looking Green,” Food Processing, January) and we publish the big Wellness Foods magazine annual All-Trends issue (“Trends 2008,” Wellness Foods, December; All are great sources to discover what’s “in” in the way of trends.

So how about what’s “out?” From an ingredient standpoint, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one ingredient that’s sinking in popularity. I believe we passed the “tipping point” last year, culminating two decades of a simmering rumble against the sweetener. A 2007 International Food Information Council study found 60 percent of American consumers claimed they were trying to consume less high-fructose corn syrup.

The frustrating aspect of this is, it doesn't matter that, as a substitute for table sugar/cane sugar, science doesn't support any need to fear corn syrup. What does matter is consumers are swallowing the pseudoscience of irresponsible nutrition reporting and are convinced HFCS is unhealthy and leads to a host of diseases, especially obesity and diabetes.

As we’ve reported in our pages before (see, “HFCS: Highly fattening or crappy science?”; “Nutrition Beyond the Trends: The Devil and High-Fructose Syrup,” and others), HFCS is chemically pretty much the same thing as table sugar. Where sucrose is a 50-50 compound of glucose and fructose, HFCS runs between 42 and 55 percent fructose to glucose. The term “high-fructose” is in relation to pure corn syrup made from hydrolyzed starch, yielding all glucose.

In the 1970s an isomerization step was introduced into the processing which converts some of the glucose into fructose. Since the amount of fructose can fall on either side of the 50-50 balance, targeting HFCS vs. sucrose or fructose doesn’t make sense. Besides, the body breaks down table sugar and HFCS into single sugar molecules anyway.

There was some good news in 2007 for corn, though. Ethanol. Although, toward the end of the year, pundits began calling the ethanol rush a bust, and there still is a lot of controversy, the negative feedback could be premature. Mandates are still in place for greater use of biofuels, and the current plateau in petroleum prices will last only as long as Middle East stability.

At this writing, corn-based ethanol is being blamed for rising food prices. But it isn’t just fuel impacting the anticipated conversion of corn into gold. Demand is ratcheting up for feed grain as the populations of India and China shift from being predominantly vegetarian populations to ardent carnivores. It takes about four pounds of grain to yield one pound of meat.

A number of other plant products are poised to take the pressure off corn for ethanol, and we can wait to see whether HFCS will weather the bad publicity (it’s probably too optimistic to believe pundits will start reporting on such things responsibly and with science-based information) or if the demand for corn for fuel somehow compensates any decrease of its use for HFCS. Who knows? When the dust settles, we might just get our cake and eat it too: Cheap fuel, plenty of bioplastics, perfectly good sweeteners and less panic.

Salt Redemption?

Hopefully, the coming year will see sodium   as equally and unfairly demonized as high-fructose corn syrup – move closer to an end of its demonization by similarly irresponsible and unscientific media assaults. Use of salt remains fairly steady, although not necessarily due to awareness that the research of the past 40 years doesn’t support a reduction in sodium for healthy individuals. Whereas the combination of the shrill and desperate evident in the anti-salt coalition’s public histrionics is likely off-putting to consumers, with the reverse effect intended, there’s the inescapable fact that unsalted food does not taste good.