High Fructose Corn Syrup: Devil's Syrup or God's Nectar

When I first started dating my wife she noticed something about me: I count calories. I would count everything I ate and mark it down in a little food diary. I also kept track of the calories I burnt walking or running with this little, over-priced pedometer.

However, as much as I kept track of the amount, I didn’t really keep track of the content. If the bread only had thirty-five calories, the yogurt only had ten, and the soda had zero, I’d eat it. My wife was the exact opposite. She’d eat fresh bread, full-fat yogurt, and the high octane, sugar-loaded soda. She was more interested in what kind of calories were going in her body than how many. As we continued dating, she won me over to her kind of thinking (as she usually does).

It is in this realm of what kind of food we eat that the debate about corn syrup rages. Some people seem to think that corn syrup, specifically high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is like sugar-sweetened arsenic. Meanwhile, corn companies seem to be of the opinion that corn syrup might have been what God used to make manna.

So here I sit at the divide. I want to make sure that what I put into my body is something healthy. At the same time I don’t want to fall prey to the simplistic thinking that anything man has tampered with must inherently be worse for you than if it came straight from the ground (almonds, anyone?).

The other interest I have in this product is because of Mixer Direct. Corn syrup is a chemically concocted item. This means that we might sell a mixer to someone who wants to whip up a batch of the stuff, and it is really beneficial for us to know what kind of companies we are doing business with.

Since you know where I'm coming from now, let's look at what I've been able to find.


The Research

The big brouhaha that comes against HFCS stems from a couple of research papers. The biggest one was one out of Princeton. In 2010 the researchers saw that when rats were given high amounts of HFCS, they gained more weight than they did when they ate the same amount of calories but had no HFCS. That is to say, if you had 1000 calories of pure sugar and then had 1000 calories of HFCS, you’d gain more weight eating HFCS even though you consumed the same amount of calories.

This research set off a firestorm. The People of the Corn fired back with ads like this one where mom-one is a hypersensitive, know-it-all who really doesn’t know the truth about corn syrup and mom-two is a level headed caretaker who is more down to earth. Great ad, but it just convinced me that hypersensitive foodies are annoying more than it convinced me HFCS is just like sugar. Just because something hasn't had definitive tests coming out against it, doesn't mean they won't come.

The anti-HFCS activists like Dr. Mark Hyman fired back with blog posts like this one. The problem with the post is that it really seems more like anecdotal evidence even though he is claiming it is hard science. At one point he essentially says, “One time they put HFCS through a chemical test and found something in the stuff besides fructose and sucrose. We didn’t know what it was, but it has to be bad.” I understand his line of thinking, but just because you don't know what something is doesn't make it bad. I don't quite get indoor plumbing, but I rather like it.


"You can make me put it in but you can't make me use it!" Mamaw's purported words when forced to put in indoor plumbing. Source: hovenfarms.com "You can make me put it in but you can't make me use it!" Mamaw's purported words when forced to install indoor plumbing. Source: hovenfarms.com

Hyman rightly feels some bitterness towards corn advocates. The Corn Syrup people sent him a letter to tell him he was on their “notice” list after he wrote a couple of disparaging articles. It definitely gives you a Big Brother vibe. Even so, Big Brother vibes indict business practices, not product quality.

The issue I found is that other researchers looked at the same studies Hyman looked at and most found the results inconclusive at best.

If you are able to sort through all the proof by verbosity and ad-hominem attacks, you get the idea that neither side has definitive proof of what they’re talking about. They both seem to be playing spin games in order to advance their own agenda.


The Verdict

So what do we do? If we stick to the innocent until proven guilty line of thinking then we risk being on the same side of history as those who promoted cigarettes as “cough suppressants.” If we say avoid it at all costs, we could end up looking like that spoiled kid who doesn't eat off-brand ice because he can “tell the difference."


Smoking as cough supressant Well, at least the didn't give them to children. Oh...wait... Source: pharmacytechs.net

I think the easiest way to address the issue is to adjust the facts that both sides agree to.

1) Corn syrup is a sugar made out of chemicals and is 55% fructose and 45% sucrose, the same as honey.

2) If you eat a lot of sugar, you're going to get fat.

3) No repeatable scientific study that has gone through a peer reviewed journal has concluded HFCS negatively affects health.

My conclusion: moderation.

It is quite possible that the chemical process that HFCS goes through could alter it chemically and make it unhealthy. Once a scientific study proves that, I'll jump on board with HFCS abstinence. However, people have been trying to prove just that point for years, and we still haven't got anything conclusive.