Trick or Treat? Corn Syrup's New Disguise

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His Bad Medicine column appears each Tuesday on LiveScience. [Bad Medicine Column Archive]

This Halloween season, the Corn Refiners Association wants to remind you that high-fructose corn syrup contains the same amount of calories as cane and beet sugar, is metabolized by the body the same way as these sweeteners are, and is all natural, albeit manufactured by chemical engineers in a multi-step process using genetically modified enzymes and giant metallic centrifuges.

The Corn Refiners Association's message is part of its new public relations campaign to counter the vilification of high-fructose corn syrup as the primary cause of the obesity epidemic. Television commercials are airing across the country.

The ad campaign is loaded with revelations, such as how high-fructose corn syrup is just like honey, which is made by enzymes in a bee's tummy as opposed to enzymes and acids in the aforementioned centrifuges before heading to ion exchange columns and liquid chromatographers.

If only half-truths could add up to the whole truth.

Just like sugar, which is bad

High-fructose corn syrup is indeed similar to cane sugar in that it is about 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, two types of simple sugars. This corn syrup contains about four calories per gram, like sugar. And once table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is digested, the body likely has no way of differentiating between their similar fructose-glucose ratios.

There was a theory, based on the way pure fructose is digested, that high-fructose corn syrup alters the body's metabolism, causing it to store more fat while hindering the release of hormones that control appetite. That theory was wrong.

So in weighing all these facts, the American Medical Association issued a statement on June 17, 2008, explaining how "high-fructose syrup does not appear to contribute more to obesity than other caloric sweeteners."

Well, the corn people loved the AMA decision. You'll find that quote all over their websites, such as the one at Unfortunately, they sort of left out part two of the AMA statement, two lines lower, which adds, "We do recommend consumers limit the amount of all added caloric sweeteners to no more than 32 grams of sugar daily."

Just try consuming less than 32 grams of high-fructose corn syrup today. Most sodas have about 40 grams.

Corn, it's everywhere

High-fructose corn syrup is far cheaper than cane sugar, and it acts as a food preservative, too, so food companies love it.

But the syrup didn't replace cane sugar at some magical one-to-one ratio. Cheap high-fructose corn syrup became the way to make lousy, processed food that is largely devoid of nutrients taste better. The stuff began to appear everywhere starting in the 1980s, from products that indeed contained cane sugar, such as soda, to foods that never had it, like soup.

Grandma's soup recipes likely didn't call for four teaspoons of high-fructose corn syrup per serving.

You'll find high-fructose corn syrup in hundreds of commercial food products that once had the potential of being healthy, such as bread, breakfast cereal, crackers, yogurt, canned fruits and vegetables, and countless sauces and condiments, along with most sweetened drinks and snack foods.

All natural

Sweeteners that have been used for centuries or more, such as honey, sugar cane and maple syrup, can be produced rather easily through techniques such as pressing or evaporation. You can't make high-fructose corn syrup in your kitchen. It's made from cornstarch, and there's no syrup in the starch to extract.

High-fructose corn syrup meets the FDA standard of all-natural, though, merely because the FDA doesn't have a definition of what constitutes natural, other than stating no artificial ingredients are added. The enzymes, from bacteria, are natural.

High-fructose corn syrup could be all-natural if cornstarch happened to fall into a vat of alpha-amylase, soak there for a while, then trickle into another vat of glucoamylase, get strained to remove the Aspergillus fungus likely growing on top, and then find its way into some industrial-grade D-xylose isomerase. This funny coincidence didn't happen in nature until the 1970s in a lab somewhere in Japan.

It's called "food science," two great words that become troublesome when combined, not unlike "public relations."

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.