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What Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Anyhow And Why All the Controversy

Danyel Mira Brisk's picture
food with high fructose corn syrup

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is shrouded in controversy and confusion. What is it really. The facts, science and history of this laboratory manufactured substance is clear when you look at the evidence. The process of making HFCS and its chemical composition, when understood correctly, clearly point to many concerns with it being in nearly all foods and drinks on the markets and fast food stores now a days. The history and science speaks for itself.


First off, let’s start by saying: I realize this is, among many things, a contentious and potentially sensitive topic. However, the history and science of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) are not. Or at least they shouldn't be. In doing in-depth researching on the topic, to get my facts straight, I had to weed through a lot of things that either were not conclusive, unclear or vague. On the other hand, there are studies and decisive evidence, especially when you look beyond the 'walls' of the US, that propel me to write on this topic.

Let’s break it down and start by just exploring what High Fructose Corn Syrup really is, on a scientific, chemical level and why there is so much controversy or confusion about it. This will help explain why and how it came on the scene to begin with and understanding how it got the status it has today of being in nearly all processed and fast foods, including most breads and sweetened drinks.

What is HFCS anyhow
On a basic level, High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. It is laboratory manufactured, and not grown in the field. It ‘looks’, on a chemical level, similar to table sugar, which is made from sugar cane, as the industry says. Cane and beet sugar, on a chemical level are made of the compound called sucrose. Because it is a 'compound', it has to be broken down in the body into two parts, glucose and fructose. These are the two innocent monosaccharides, or simple sugars, at the heart of the controversy.

To make HFCS, the manufacturer's start with corn, the largest cash crop in the Americas, which is almost definitely GMO with chemicals used in the growing process. Manufacturers break it down to make the corn syrup, which is only made up of glucose molecules to begin with, in its 'natural' form. They add enzymes and acids to change its chemical makeup, creating chains with fructose and glucose, thus why it is called ‘high fructose’ (it contains more fructose than normal corn syrup). The structure of these compounds is different from that found in table sugar, sucrose, however.

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HFCS does not have all the glucose and fructose molecules attached together. This slight difference can mean a big difference in terms of how it acts in foods as well as in the body. The manufacturers created the syrup specifically to have fructose in the way that it is. Fructose is sweeter than glucose and it provide other benefits to the foods and drinks, from a manufacturer's and consumers perspective. Not necessarily from a health perspective, but who's counting.

When was HFCS developed
HFCS was first invented in the 1950’s but only made popular it foods we eat in the 1980’s. The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) first discovered / invented it and used it as an alternative sweetener when they could make it commercially viable. Before then, sweetened foods or drinks contained cane or beet sugar. As industry pushed this 'revolutionary' substance, it changed the way foods and drinks were produced and the whole industry. 'Sweets', packaged and fast began to take off in the market around that time, up to the point we are now where we look around and it is hard to find food on the shelves or fast food places without HFCS in it.

Why was HFCS developed and what purpose does it have in food and drinks

  • HFCS is cheaper to produce than sweeteners from sugar cane or many other sources, thus allowing our processed foods to be cheaper. Note that the low cost of production it is due in part to the fact that the corn industry in the USA is highly subsidized as compared to the sugarcane industry. There were other economic and political circumstances for the industries around the time it was created that made its popularity favorable.
    • It is more chemically stable than cane and other sugars, acting as a preservative and giving the foods and drinks a longer shelf life.
      • It helps preserve the color, flavor and look of foods. It also gives those cookies their chewiness, and that nice browning coloring without burning and still look and taste 'great' even after weeks... months... or longer on the shelf.
        • It dissolves easier in liquids thus giving a better look and more even taste to sweetened beverages than cane or beet derived sugars.
          • More controversial, yet scientifically accurate, among the affects the "high fructose" has on the body is to prevent us from getting a 'full feeling', and in fact creating a sense of needing to eat more (ie. additive like behavior) To assume this was and is not known by the manufacturers is a bit naive. They would certainly benefit from this 'side effect' as well.

            So why all the confusion and controversy over HFCS
            Mainly, the controversy comes in when discussing how it ‘acts’ in the body and its health effects. There may be a number of reasons for this. Here is stab at two likely reasons that seem most obvious to me.

            • Firstly the name misleads people. People see ‘fructose’ and they understandably associate it with fruit, ie. healthy and natural. The corn part is the same. It is easy to think that it would have the same value and benefits as other fruit, vegetables or grains, or at least be some ‘natural’ substance derived from these foods. Names can be deceiving. HFCS is only ‘natural’ in the sense that to make it, the process starts with corn, which of course is ‘natural’. However, nowhere in nature does HFCS exist without people in laboratories and factories manipulate the chemical makeup of the corn syrup. It would not exist without the the manufacturer's proprietary process which they are not disclosing.
              • The industries and companies supporting the production and use of HFCS in our foods are among the most influential in our country, and thus the world. As mentioned, corn is the largest cash crop in the Americas, highly subsidized by the US government. A look into some of the history of it’s use in food and legal battles surrounding it will give additional insight into their influence.

                Being informed consumers
                You can come to your own conclusions about what all this means. We will look deeper into the effects it has in the body and other consequences in future articles. We simply want to help demystify what this strangely named substance really is and what purpose it serves in the foods and drinks we consume.

                Please let me know what questions you have about this complicated topic as we continue to explore in in more depth.