01 August 2010

Issues: High Fructose Corn Syrup: Part 2

What's in Your Diet

Yesterday, I wrote about the current research on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), how there is an ongoing but unclear debate on whether HFCS is any worse for your health than sugar, and that scientists point to sweeteners and lack of exercise for Americans' trouble with obesity. One thing that comes up is whether HFCS and other sweeteners are becoming more common in our food. So, today I decided to perform an extremely unscientific experiment involving my own diet. After my latest grocery shopping trip, I went through the ingredient list of each item I purchased. I tracked which contained HFCS, sugar, both or neither. Results are below, with notes (S,H,D indicate order of ingredients of Sugar, HFCS, and Dextrose):

High Fructose Corn SyrupSugarNeitherBoth
Hot Dog BunsBreadPotato ChipsCookies (D,H,S)
Hot Dogs (less than 2% H, more than 2% D)Hot PocketsMilkLemonade (H,S)
PicklesPasta SauceCheeseYogurt (S,H)
Stuffing MixFlavored Rice MixGround BeefIce Cream**
Tortillas (last ingredient)Chicken
Chocolate BarFruits… Assorted
Brownie MixVegtables…Assorted
Chicken Helper*
*Within the half dozen varieties of Chicken/Hamburger Helper (they were on sale) some listed sugar as high as the third ingredient, while others had none.
**Second to the lemonade, ice cream might be the best way to fill up on sweeteners. After cream and milk, the ingredients are, in order: sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar.

There are a few things to point out here, but several ways to interpret the results. Remember this experiment is not designed to draw any scientific conclusions.

A surprising source of
sugars. (Starbooze)

  • First and most obvious is that most of the food products I bought contain some kind of sweetener. I bought several types of fruits and vegetables but I think even listing all of them, the "Neither" category would be less than half of the products I purchased.
  • Most of the items that contain only one sweetener contain a very small amount, which includes all of the items with only HFCS, and all with only sugar except the chocolate bar and brownie mix.
  • The most surprising to me had to be pickles for containing any sweetener, though HFCS was towards the end of the short list of ingredients, and yogurt, for containing both sweeteners. The brand was Yoplait original, which I think many consider a healthy food choice, yet the second ingredient was sugar, and HFCS was fifth of about ten. Yogurt, of course, has benefits in moderation and a balanced diet, but I was surprised.  Yoplait light has no sugar, but HFCS is the second ingredient for most flavors and the source of about 80 of each container's 100 calories.
  • The most sweetener-packed item has to be the lemonade. After water, the second and third ingredients were HFCS and sugar. The other ingredients are vitamins and flavor.
I would conclude that most of my food contains some kind of sweetener, but the majority has negligible amounts. Of the items on the list, six can be considered to get a large portion of their calories from sweeteners. The cookies, lemonade, and ice cream have both sweeteners but more HFCS. The chocolate, brownies, and yogurt have mainly sugar. In addition, I searched my cupboards for additional sugar filled items and found equal number with HFCS (pop tarts, which need to be carbon dated, and pancake syrup, where HFCS was pretty much the only ingredient) and sugar (granola bars and Gatorade power).

All in all, I would say I get about as many calories from sugar as HFCS, which lines up with the national data from the USDA. Whether our food is packed with sweeteners probably depends on individual dietary choices, as the ones I found crammed with HFCS and sugar could be expected, with perhaps the exception of yogurt and granola bars. And if you want to avoid HFCS yourself, good news is that there are many foods out there without any.

Juice, important vitamins, but also
high in calories.
Liquid Calories

There is one thing that struck me. The lemonade, though tasty, is basically HFCS water. It has 100 calories per 8 ounces, more than coca-cola. But it is not the only drink to look out for. Sodas, sports drinks, sweetened iced tea, and juices of all types are high in calories, which all come from sugars. 100% Apple juice contains about 30% more calories per ounce than soft drinks, and it is predominantly fructose. Some cranberry drinks and "juice cocktails" are even worse (check #2). Juice does provide health benefits that soda does not, but many good nutrients are lost processing the fruit, and juice can add large amounts of calories if not drank in moderation. Eating fruit is healthier than drinking it.

Medical research points to evidence that people have trouble considering the calorie count of drinks in their daily intake as a top factor in increased obesity and diabetes. Add to that concerns that increased fructose consumption, whether from HFCS or sucrose, confuses the mechanism in our body that limits our appetite and speeds our metabolism, and these effects are worse when the fructose is in liquids.

Closing Comments

If the United States, and you personally, want to cut down on the amount of HFCS, sweeteners, and calories we take in, the place to start is with our drinks. You can drink water (not bottled!), tea, diet or "light" beverages. Cut juice with water or make lemon water without sugar. And know that sweetened coffee drinks and fruit smoothies, especially those with peanut butter, are often high in fat and top any of the previously mentioned drinks in calorie count.

It's not all bad news, even with drinks. Knowing that the eating less and promoting exercise will help may make the fight simpler than trying to eliminate an ingredient from our food supply. HFCS is a cause for concern, but so it sugar. There is little evidence to indicate one is much worse than the other, so replacing HFCS with sugar would do little. But there is good evidence that if we reduce our intake of both sweeteners, starting with what we drink, the country will get healthier.

Additional Links

More about HFCS

Obesity in the United States

Info on Sports in the United States


  1. A guy names Ivan Royster started a Facebook page to ban HFCS in the US. Last count he had over 160,000 fans. The Corn Refiners Association is less than happy. Here's an article about him and his effort: http://organicconnectmag.com/wp/2010/05/the-impact-of-one-mans-outrage/

  2. Isn't the health question only a small part of the anti-HFCS crowd? I'm not super-informed about the push against it, but I gather it has a lot to do with government subsidies for corn leading to corn being used for everything, over-processing of food in general, and the wide us of ANY kind of sweetener in foods you might not expect.

    It always seemed to me that HFCS was just an indicator of a highly processed corporatized subsidized unhealthy food.

    I remember hearing when one of those big food policy books came out "Eater's Manifesto" or something like that... All of a sudden Hagen Dazs comes out with 5 ingredient Hagen Dazs (because the book complains about foods having so many ingredients). The author was not happy at all with the new ice cream. The anti-long-list-of-ingredients was about being against processed corporate unhealthy food. Same thing with "real sugar" soda.

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. mkduke, I am aware of Mr. Royster's push. I even left a comment on his blog inviting him to read what I wrote. I know his movement is quite popular, and, while it is not something I would lobby for, I don't necessarily think it is the wrong action. I hope that the members of this movement are open to all findings from the scientific research, whether it supports their actions or not. I do think it is possible for someone to understand what the research has found (and not found, there are too few studies directly comparing HFCS to sugar and many questions unanswered) and still decide that banning HFCS is a good idea. I think the danger in focusing on a ban of HFCS is that we might just end up replacing HFCS with sugar in all products, and be left with the same obesity and diabetes problems. But my goal was more about presenting the scientific conclusions than convince people what to do about them.

    In the last few years, the corn refiners association has been going on the offensive trying to prove HFCS is no worse than sugar, which is mostly true, but they have been very misleading about it. They say how both are fine in moderation, but do their best to not mention that over consumption of both cause obesity and diabetes. I have seen them commenting on blogs like this directly, and producing somewhat ridiculous commercials. The worst thing they do is to cherry pick scientific studies, and promote those that make them look good, while actively trying to discredit those that make them look bad.

    Ndetra, I think the health questions are a major part of the issue of HFCS, but you are right that they are not everything. The next big problem I hear about is the issue of subsidies, just like you talked about. The reason I didn't write much about them is because I couldn't find a lot of information. It is said that they make HFCS cheaper and foods using HFCS are cheaper and we consume more. But I found estimates of how much cheaper anywhere from 50% to a negligible amount. The issues of subsidies is another research project.