Coke and Pepsi have it. Heinz Ketchup does, too. Some Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Yogurts have it, as well as Wish-Bone Italian Dressing, Mt. Olive Bread and Butter Pickles, Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, Wish-Bone Ranch Dressing, Miracle Whip Salad Dressing, and B&M Original Baked Beans. What ingredient do these disparate products have in common? They are sweetened by high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.
You might expect Nabisco's Oreo's to have HFCS, but not Nabisco's Fat Free Fig Newtons, or Thomas English Muffins, or even Contadina Tomato Paste.
What's the difference between natural sugars and HFCS and why does it matter?
Cane sugar is the product of a grassy reed first used in the South Pacific 8,000 years ago. Once discovered by other cultures, it quickly flourished throughout the world. Alexander the Great called it "honey without bees."
Fast forward to the 1970s when American soft drink companies used cane sugar almost exclusively to sweeten drinks. Then, only a few substances were available to sweeten products; today, according to the Sugar Association, there are 26 sweetener ingredients, including HFCS.
Historically the U.S. government has maintained strict tariffs governing the importation of sugar and products made with cane and beet sugars. In the 1970s, cane sugar, which is labor-intensive to produce, was relatively expensive. Corn, however, was not. In 1971, a Japanese scientist created high fructose corn syrup in a Japanese government-affiliated laboratory. Japan, like other nations, were restricted from importing sugar cane products into the United States, but not corn-sweetened products. The name high fructose corn syrup is actually a misnomer and is misleading to consumers. When it was named in the 1970s, the intent was to show the higher content of fructose than regular corn syrup.
Today HFCS is made by publicly traded agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midlands. These producers argue that HFCS is natural, albeit manufactured. The process to make HFCS is extensive: corn starch, separated from corn kernels, is ground, screened, spun at extremely high velocities, washed, and then enzymes are added to accelerate a molecular rearrangement. Consumer activists argue that HFCS is not a naturally occurring substance since it undergoes this process. Additionally, they argue that corn grown in the United States is likely to be genetically engineered and thus is not natural.
Not all HFCS is the same. Blends vary in the proportion of fructose; for example, HFCS-55, which is 55 percent fructose, is the HFCS used in soft drinks, while HFCS-42 is commonly used in jellies. In the 1980s most American soft drink companies switched to HFCS to sweeten their drinks and realized millions of dollars in cost saving. This was enough money, some nutritionists argue, to increase the size of the soft drinks containers. Coincidentally, in 1983 7-11 convenience stores introduced the Big Gulp and McDonald's supersizing soon followed.
The concern among some nutritionists has been that HFCS contributes to obesity, since fructose is metabolized differently and does not prompt the hormones that control appetite suppressants. But, to date no studies have proved this conclusively. Other scientists theorized that Americans' increased girth since the 1980s may be ascribed to the larger portion sizes and decreasing cost of sweet products rather than exclusively to HFCS.
Aside from the structural differences between naturally occurring sugars and HFCS, there is taste. Sodas made with cane sugar, admittedly more expensive, simply taste better. A package of a Moon Pie and a sugar-cane RC Cola at the Mast General Stores in Boone, N.C., reveals an RC Cola that is not cloyingly sweet. In April, the Jones Soda Co., headquartered in Seattle, whose premium sodas are sold locally, made the strategic move to switch from HFCS to pure cane syrup. Their tag line is "Corn is for Cars ... Sugar is for Sodas." (Note: some of the Jones Co. bottles on grocery store shelves still contain HFCS.) Other specialty sodas are made with cane syrup: Hansen's Signature All Natural Ginger Beer has created a series of crisp-tasting soft drinks.
Not all Coca-Colas have HFCS. Coca-Colas bottled in Mexico, some of which are sold locally in Latino markets, still have cane syrup and not HFCS.
Naturally occurring sugars have a preferable taste in other products. The best example of this is the decades-long transformation of Maple syrup via HFCS. Maple syrup is a natural sugar from the sap of maple trees which Native Americans traded with early colonial settlers. Before cane sugar was introduced in the early 1800s, maple sugar was one of the few sweeteners. Log Cabin Syrup, now a brand of Pinnacle Food Group, Inc., began life as "pure maple syrup." Today this syrup is oozing and thick -- a faint impression of a thin, robust "pure" maple syrup whose intensity would preclude the flooding of pancakes. Only a small amount is needed.
The backlash of consumers seeking "natural" products has opened the doors to small handcrafted soda companies like Hansen's. Some food manufacturing companies have added "organic" lines. For example, Motts organic applesauce does not contain HFCS, while the traditional does. In a random blind taste test when given the choice between the traditional and organic Motts applesauce, neighborhood kids chose traditional (the one with HFCS) saying it was "sweeter," while adults preferred the apple taste of the organic.
Which presents a question of taste? Has the pervasiveness and sweetness of HFCS influenced how Americans perceive flavor? If so, this would be the most pernicious attribution of HFCS.
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