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Publication #FCS8903

Facts About HFCS—High Fructose Corn Syrup1

Leila M. Kalley and Karla P. Shelnutt2

In the 1960s scientists discovered how to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from corn. Its chemical makeup is very similar to table sugar (sucrose), which is composed of 50% fructose and 50% glucose (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013). HFCS used in sweetened beverages contains 55% fructose while HFCS in other products contains 42% fructose (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013). HFCS is cheaper than sucrose and provides a desirable consistency to certain foods. Because of this, it has become widely used in foods and beverages (White, 2008). Its use as a sweetener has skyrocketed, and it now accounts for about half of all sweeteners in the United States (White, 2008). Consumers have many questions about HFCS and the effects it may have on the body. This publication is designed to address some of these concerns and provide the most updated information on this sweetener.

Figure 1. 
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Is HFCS "Natural?"

Special interest groups, consumers, and companies each have their own ideas about what is "natural." This can make it hard for consumers to get a straight answer. In August 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that HFCS may be labeled "natural" as long as the product had not come into contact with any artificial ingredients or chemicals during processing (International Dairy Foods Association, 2008). However, the FDA has not currently developed a definition for the use of the term “natural,” so it is important for consumers to read the Nutrition Facts Label for an accurate list of ingredients (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2012). There are many other questions related to the use of HFCS.

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Does HFCS Cause Obesity?

One of the main concerns people have about HFCS is whether or not it causes obesity. This question was raised after a 2004 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested the sweetener might cause weight gain (Bray, Nielsen & Popkin, 2004). However, a 2012 study suggests that HFCS has the same effect on body weight as sucrose (Lowndes et al., 2012). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, recommends decreasing the consumption of added sugars, which includes HFCS and sucrose as well as other forms of sugar (USDA, 2010). Essentially, excess calories from any sweetener (or any food) can cause weight gain. Eating a variety of healthier foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat and fat-free milk products, and lean meats and beans, combined with adequate physical activity is the best way to prevent obesity and maintain a healthy weight.

What About Other Health Conditions?

More research is needed to determine whether or not there is an association between HFCS and other chronic diseases. Currently, the main concern is the effect that excess fructose consumption may have on the body (Tappy & Lê, 2010). Although HFCS does contain fructose, its chemical composition is similar to sucrose (table sugar) and it is metabolized by the body in a similar way (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2013).

Does HFCS Contain Mercury?

The buzz surrounding this topic occurred after two 2009 studies reported that some HFCS made in the United States contained small amounts of mercury (Dufault et al., 2009; Wallinga, Sorensen, Mottl & Yablon, 2009). Mercury can be toxic to a person's nervous system, kidneys, and lungs. The presence of mercury has been attributed to the use of certain chemicals during the manufacturing process.

One study found that nine out of 20 HFCS samples tested contained mercury (Dufault et al., 2009). Another study found that nearly one-third of 55 popular brand-name beverage and food products in which HFCS was the first or second ingredient contained mercury (Wallinga, Sorensen, Mottl & Yablon, 2009). Even though there are mercury-free HFCS products, there is no way to know if your food or beverage product contains HFCS with traces of mercury. Toxicologists have confirmed that the levels of mercury in the foods and beverages are well below the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safe exposure level and are not harmful (Duke University Medical Center, 2012).

HFCS and Corn Subsidies

Many United States farmers produce subsidized (government-funded) crops such as wheat, soybean, and/or corn. Partly due to the subsidies, foods that contain HFCS such as prepackaged and processed foods are available at low cost (White, 2008). Because price is often a deciding factor when shopping, especially for those with limited resources, the lower cost of foods that contain HFCS may result in purchasing more highly processed, low nutrient-dense foods (White, 2008). Some health advocates suggest that limiting the incentives for producing corn used to make HFCS might increase the production of other crops such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, which would make them more available and perhaps more affordable (Scientific American, 2012).

Conclusion

The important message to convey is that the source of the added sugar should not be the main concern. It doesn't matter if the sugar comes from sucrose, honey, or HFCS (Lowndes et al., 2012). Instead consumers should watch their total calories and work on making sure they don't exceed their recommendations. HFCS along with other sweeteners should be consumed in moderation to avoid weight gain and the associated health problems.

For more information about high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners, contact one of the following reliable sources in your county:

  • UF/IFAS Extension Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) educator (look in the blue pages of your telephone book). UF/IFAS Extension offices are listed online at http://solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu/map.

  • WIC nutritionist at your county health department (also in the blue pages of your telephone book).

  • For referral to a registered dietitian (RD) in your area, you can call the Florida Dietetic Association at (850) 386-8850 or check the yellow pages of your phone book.

Recommended Websites

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This website contains credible health and nutrition information supplied by the government. Materials are available in nine languages. http://www.cdc.gov

  • The Mayo Clinic. This site is a non-profit medical practice that consists of physicians, scientists, and researchers. They share their expertise to provide accurate and current health information. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-fructosecorn-syrup/AN01588

References

Bray, G. A., Nielsen, S. J., & Popkin, B. M. (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(4), 537–543.

Dufault, R., LeBlanc, B., Schnoll, R., Cornett, C., Schweitzer, L., Wallinga, D., Hightower, J., Patrick, L., & Lukiw, W. (2009). Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: Measured concentrations in food product sugar. Environmental Health, 8(1), 2.

Duke University Medical Center. (2012). Recent toxicological issues. Retrieved from http://duketox.mc.duke.edu/recenttoxissues.htm

International Dairy Foods Association. (2008). Letter from FDA clarifies natural status of high fructose corn syrup. Retrieved from http://www.idfa.org/key-issues/category/labeling--standards/other-label-claims/details/2944/

Lowndes, J., Kawiecki, D., Pardo, S., Nguyen, V., Melanson, K. J., Yu, Z., & Rippe, J. M. (2012). The effects of four hypocaloric diets containing different levels of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup on weight loss and related parameters. Nutrition Journal, 11(1), 1–10.

Scientific American. (2012). For a healthier county, overhaul farm subsidies. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fresh-fruit-hold-the-insulin

Tappy, L., & Lê, K. A. (2010). Metabolic effects of fructose and the worldwide increase in obesity. Physiological Reviews, 90(1), 23–46.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2010). Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. Retrieved from http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2012). What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food? Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214868.htm

U.S. FDA. (2013). High fructose corn syrup: Questions and answers. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm324856.htm

Wallinga, D., Sorensen, J., Mottl, P., & Yablon, B. (2009). Not so sweet: Missing mercury and high fructose corn syrup. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Retrieved from http://www.healthobservatory.org/library.cfm

White, J. S. (2008). Straight talk about high-fructose corn syrup: What it is and what it ain't. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 88(6), 1716S–1721S.

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS8903, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: May 2010. Latest revision: July 2013. Please visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Leila M. Kalley, former dietetic intern, Master of Science-Dietetic Internship Program, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; Karla P. Shelnutt, PhD, RD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of UF/IFAS.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.