by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup)

Oct 26 2010

New study: HFCS-sweetened drinks higher in fructose than expected

I’ve been saying for ages that the sugar composition of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is no different from that of table sugar (sucrose).

Oops.  A new study in the journal, Obesity, actually measured the amounts and kinds of sugars in 23 kinds of HFCS-sweetened drinks.

The findings are summarized in a fact sheet:

  • The sugar content varied widely from amounts stated on labels.  Some drinks had 15% less sugar than labeled, but others had as much as 30% more.
  • On average, the drinks had 18% more fructose than expected.
  • Several brands of sodas seemed to be made with HFCS that is 65% fructose, not 55%.
  • The average amount of fructose in the drinks was 59%.

The press release points out one other finding.  You know how everyone thinks Mexican Coca-Cola is so much more delicious than American Coke because it is made with table sugar (sucrose), not HFCS?  Oops again.  The investigators could not find any sucrose in the Coke, but did find plenty of glucose and fructose.  This suggests that Mexican Coke is also made with HFCS (or it could also mean that the sucrose had been split into its constituent glucose and fructose).

To review the biochemistry: sucrose is a double sugar of glucose and fructose bonded together.  HFCS is glucose and fructose, separated.  The sucrose bond is quickly split in the intestine and its glucose and fructose are the same as those in HFCS.

The metabolic problems that result from sugar intake are mostly due to the fructose content.  Less is better for health.  More is better for the soft drink industry, however.  Fructose is sweeter than either glucose or sucrose, and sweet is what sells sodas.

At most, HFCS is supposed to be 55% fructose, as compared to the 50% in table sugar.  Most foods and drinks are supposed to be  using HFCS that is 42% fructose.  A percentage of 55 is not much different biologically than 50, which is why the assumption has been that there is no biologically meaningful difference between HFCS and table sugar.   This study, if confirmed, means that this supposition may need some rethinking.

The study names the beverages that contain 65% fructose: Coke, Pepsi, Sprite. It identifies Dr. Pepper, Gatorade, and Arizona Ice Tea as containing close to 60% fructose.

If, in fact, the percentage of fructose is higher than advertised, it’s another good reason to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages.

Addition and possible caution:  I’ve now heard separately from two experts on measuring sugars in beverages who point out serious flaws in the methods used in this study:

  • The results are based on one beverage sample, analyzed once.   Analytical methods invariably produce ranges of values and require multiple samples and analyses.
  • Measuring sugars in beverages is technically challenging and there are several possible methods, some of which give more accurate results than others.  Although the paper says the investigators used standard methods, it does not specify which.
  • The methods used did not seem to detect the small starches or maltose that are always present in HFCS.  If the methods “read” the little starches as fructose, the percentage could easily have been 59 rather than 55.
  • The drinks that contained 65% fructose were bottled drinks, and that is a concern.  The fountain drinks are mixed by the company–McDonald’s or Burger King–and could have been made too concentrated by whoever did the mixing.
  • The failure to find sucrose in Mexican Coca-Cola could be two to two reasons: the Coke is old and the sucrose “inverted” (split into glucose and fructose), or the company used HFCS instead of sucrose.

The bottom line remains the same: it’s best not to eat too much sugar or any kind.

Addition, October 27: Cara Wilking, an attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston, notes that this study raises the possibility that HFCS violates federal prohibitions against:

  • False and misleading food labeling
  • Food adulteration
  • False and misleading advertising

It will be interesting to follow how the lawyers deal with these issues.

Sep 20 2010

One more time: corn sugar chemistry

Thanks to alert reader Glen for pointing out that the FDA already has a regulation for Corn Sugar in the Code of Federal Regulations, under food substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  CFR Section 184.1857 reads:

(a) corn sugar (C6H12O6, CAS Reg. No. 50-99-7), commonly called D-glucose or dextrose, is the chemical [alpha]-D-glucopyranose. It occurs as the anhydrous or the monohydrate form and is produced by the complete hydrolysis of corn starch with safe and suitable acids or enzymes, followed by refinement and crystallization from the resulting hydrolysate.

(b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the Food Chemicals Codex, 3d Ed. (1981), pp. 97-98 under the heading “Dextrose….”

(c) In accordance with 184.1(b)(1), the ingredient is used in food with no limitation other than current good manufacturing practice.

The Corn Refiners have just petitioned the FDA to be allowed to use the name Corn Sugar to apply to both glucose/dextrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  But the existing definition seems to exclude HFCS.  While HFCS is about half glucose, it is also about half fructose, and its manufacture from corn starch requires one more enzyme.

A reminder about sugar chemistry:

  • Glucose is the sugar in blood, and dextrose is the name given to glucose produced from corn but biochemically they are identical.
  • Fructose is the principal sugar in fruit.  In fruit, it raises no issues because it is accompanied by nutrients and fiber.
  • Sucrose is table sugar.  It is a double sugar, containing one part each of glucose (50%) and fructose (50%), chemically bound together.  Enzymes in the intestine quickly and efficiently split sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed into the body as single sugars.
  • HFCS is made from corn starch.  It contains roughly equivalent amounts of glucose (45 to 58%) and fructose (42 to 55%).

HFCS raises several issues, health and otherwise:

  • Quantity: the U.S. food supply provides to every American (all ages) about 60 pounds of sucrose and another 60 pounds of HFCS each year.  This is way more than is good for health.  Sugars of any kind provide calories but no nutrients.
  • Fructose: increasing evidence suggests that the metabolism of fructose–which differs from that of glucose–is associated with abnormalities.  This means that it is best to reduce intake of fructose from table sugar as well as HFCS.
  • Farm subsidies: these go to large corn producers and have kept down the cost of HFCS relative to that of sucrose.  The use of corn to make ethanol has raised the relative price of HFCS.
  • Genetic modification: Most corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to resist insects or herbicides.

From a health standpoint, it makes no difference whether the sweetener is sucrose or HFCS.

As for agave sugar as a substitute: it can have much higher concentrations of fructose than either sucrose or HFCS but its labels do not give percentages so you have no way to know how much.

Given all this, what’s your guess about what the FDA will decide?

Sep 14 2010

Corn Refiners ask FDA to replace “HFCS” with “Corn Sugar”

The Corn Refiners Association is asking the FDA to allow a change in the name of their embattled sweetener from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to Corn Sugar.

Of course they want this change.  HFCS is the new trans fat.  Everyone thinks HFCS is poison.

For the record once again, HFCS is not poison.  It is just a mixture of glucose and fructose in almost the same proportions as table sugar, sucrose.

Mind you, I am not fond of the idea that Americans use 60 pounds of corn sweeteners per capita per year and another 60 pounds of table sugar, and I am not particularly eager to help the Corn Refiners sell more of their stuff.

But you can understand the Corn Refiners’ pain: food companies are getting rid of HFCS as fast as they can and replacing it with table sugar.

This move is driven not only by bad press, but also by the fact that the price differential has all but disappeared.  HFCS started out at one-third the cost of table sugar.  Growing corn to make alcohol changed all that.

Let’s give the Corn Refiners credit for calling a sugar a sugar.  I would prefer Corn Sugars (plural) to indicate that it is a mixture of glucose and fructose.  But as long as they don’t call it “natural,” the change is OK with me.

But I’m wondering if it’s too late.  Maybe anything with the word “corn” in it will be enough to turn people off?  According to the Associated Press, the Corn Refiners are already using Corn Sugar in their advertising, so we will soon find out.

Your thoughts?

Additional historical note: Thanks to a reader,, who is evidently a fount of information about such things, for this enlightening tidbit:

In the early 1900s, what we call “corn syrup” was sold as “glucose,” the chemical name for the type of sugar derived from corn starches. Food reformers pointed to the “glucose” in candy and claimed that candy was poisoned with “glue.”  So the corn producers lobbied to have “glucose” renamed “corn syrup.” Sounds like we’re coming around again full circle…now “corn syrup” is poison!

Updates, September 15: Tara Parker-Pope writes about this in the New York Times (and quotes me).  So does Michele Simon on her blog.  As usual, Simon says it like it is:

As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better….Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It’s like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

How, I wonder, will the Corn Refiners manage this one?  Not so easily, judging from readers’ comments.

Update, September 16: reports that more than half of Americans surveyed will not buy products with HFCS.  Market researchers are advising food companies to get rid of it.

Mar 24 2010

HFCS makes rats fat?

I can hardly believe that Princeton sent out a press release yesterday announcing the results of this rat study.  The press release says: “Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.”

How they came to these conclusions is beyond me. Here’s the original paper.

It has long been known that feeding sugars to rats makes them eat more and gain weight.  But, as summarized in Table 1 in the paper, the researchers did only two experiments that actually compared the effects of HFCS to sucrose on weight gain, and these gave inconsistent results.  Their other experiments compared HFCS to chow alone.

The study is extremely complicated and confusingly described.  As best as I can tell, here’s what they found:

1.  The first study used 10 male rats in each group and observed them for 8 weeks.  At the end of the study, the rats fed chow alone weighed 462 grams.  The rats fed sucrose plus chow weighed 477±9 grams.   The rats fed HFCS plus chow weighed 502±11 grams.   The authors say the difference between 477 and 502 grams is statistically significant.  But these rats were offered the sugars for 12 hours per day.  The rats fed HFCS for 24 hours per day, which should be expected to be fatter, were not.  They weighed less (470 grams) than the rats fed sucrose for 12 hours per day.  So these results are inconsistent.

2.  The second study did not compare rats eating HFCS to rats eating sucrose.  It just looked at the effects of HFCS in groups of 8 male rats.

3.  The third study used female rats (number not given) and observed them for 7 months.  At the end of the study period, female rats fed HFCS plus chow for 12 hours a day weighed 323±9 grams.  Female rats fed sucrose plus chow under the same conditions weighed 333±10 grams.   This result is not statistically significant.

Although the authors say calorie intake was the same, they do not report calories consumed nor do they discuss how they determined  that calorie intake was the same.  This is an important oversight because measuring the caloric intake of lab rats is notoriously difficult to do (they are messy).

So, I’m skeptical.  I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats.  I’m afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one.

So does HFCS make rats fat?  Sure if you feed them too many calories altogether.  Sucrose will do that too.

NOTE 3/26: see point-by-point response to this post by Bart Hoebel, one of the authors of the study, in the Comments below.

Addition, November 23: Thanks to Jeff Walker, professor of Biology at the University of Southern Maine, Portland, for doing a detailed critique of the study, most thoughtful and well worth a look.

Jan 25 2010

A quick Q and A: sugars and fats

I wish I could answer all of the questions that come into Feedback or Comments, but I cannot except occasionally.  It’s a rainy day in New York and today seems to be one of those occasions.

Q: Does the caloric value of a food change when it’s cooked?  In his latest book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human,” Harvard Primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking foods changes the available nutrient content and actually raises the available calories.

A:  The rules of physical chemistry tell us that matter cannot be destroyed or created so the number of calories available in a food does not change with temperature.  What can change is our ability to use (digest, absorb) the calories that are there as well as our desire to eat the foods.  Cooking makes the calories in potato starch more available, for example, but has hardly any effect on the calories in meat.  Both, in my opinion at least, taste better cooked.    But cooked or not, the calorie differences will be small and unlikely to account significantly for weight change.

The nutrient situation is also complicated.  Cooking destroys some nutrients (vitamin C is a good example) but makes others more available (beta-carotene).  This is another reason why nutritionists are always advising variety in food intake.  Variety applies to cooked and raw, as well.

Q.  Can you please explain what benefits, if any, there are in using a “natural” sweetener, e.g. agave, over regular sugar?  Are there any differences in terms of glucose/fructose makeup?

A.  Agave is more expensive so you probably won’t use as much of it.  Beyond that, it is higher in fructose than table sugar or honey.  This is because agave contains inulin, a polymer of fructose, which must be hydrolyzed (broken down by heat or enzymes) to fructose to make the sweetener.  It’s a processed sweetener requiring one hydrolysis step, requiring more processing than honey and less than high fructose corn syrup.  It has the same number of calories as any other sugar, about 4 per gram or 16 per teaspoon.

Q.  Also, you’ve written on a prior blog that fructose is “preferentially” metabolized into fat by the body.  Can you explain in more detail what that means?

A.  More and more evidence suggests that high amounts of fructose in the diet are not good for health.  Fructose occurs naturally in fruit and nobody worries about that because fruits don’t contain all that much and the sugar is accompanies by vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are well worth eating.  Honey, table sugar, and high fructose corn syrup (a misnomer) are about 50% each glucose and fructose.  Glucose and fructose are metabolized differently and some investigators believe that excessive amounts of fructose stress metabolism in ways that encourage fat deposition.  Eating a lot of sugars of any kind is not a great idea, which is why there are so many concerns about soft drinks these days.

Q.  I would appreciate some comments about the “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.

A.  The study concludes:  

A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease]. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.

This is a review of previous epidemiological studies (not clinical trials).  These fail to find a correlation between consumption of saturated fat and heart disease.  This could be because there is no correlation or there is one but they can’t find it.  My interpretation: even if there is one, it is likely to be small.

I am increasingly convinced that studies of single nutrients – sugar, fructose, saturated fat, or even omega-3s – will give complicated results when removed from their dietary context.  People who eat foods containing a lot of sugars or animal fats eat and behave differently than people who do not, but not so differently that health differences will show up in the kinds of studies scientists are currently able to do.

Keep in mind: nutrition science is exceedingly difficult to do because there are so many factors in foods that affect health and so many behavioral, economic, and social factors that affect what people eat.

All of this is why I find nutrition so interesting but I can understand why others might find it frustrating.

Aug 21 2009

Colbert Report: The sugar crisis!

Colbert Report, August 19: I was interviewed on the Colbert Report about sugar policy, of all things.  U.S. sugar policy is so absurd that I did not think it could be satirized, but Colbert managed just fine.  Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been completely disconcerted by his dousing himself with five pounds of sugar:

The sugar “crisis”: On August 5, several groups representing makers of processed foods wrote a letter asking the USDA to raise the quota on imported sugar because stocks are lower than they have been in years.  Why?  Because domestic sugar production is thoroughly governed by quotas, imported sugar is thoroughly controlled by quotas and tariffs, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is increasingly diverted to ethanol.  Got that?

Reminder about definitions: “Sugar” usually refers just to sucrose made from sugar cane and sugar beets; it is glucose and fructose stuck together.  The other major sweetener is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It is also made of glucose and fructose, but separated.   Sucrose and HFCS work the same way in the body and are hardly distinguishable physiologically.   For the purposes of this discussion, I use sugar to refer to the sweetener refined from sugar beets and sugar cane, and HFCS for the sweetener made from corn.

Sugar protection policies: Even though it amounts to only 1% of agricultural production, U.S. sugar is the single most heavily protected agricultural commodity.  No matter what the price on the world market, U.S. sugar producers and processors get paid a high price.  Historically, this price has been two to three times higher than world market prices.   Although this has for decades cost American consumers $2 billion to $3 billion a year in higher sugar prices, nobody much noticed because it “only” amounted to about $10 per year per person over and above what you would pay for sugar anyway.  Today, the gap between domestic and world market prices has gotten much smaller, mainly because there isn’t as much HFCS around (more on this later).

Quotas and tariffs: These are amazing, really.  U.S. producers are allowed to grow a certain amount of cane and beets each year for which they are guaranteed a price set by USDA.    Beets get 55% of the total quota allotment and cane gets 45%. This works like a closed shop.  If you want to start growing beets or cane for domestic sugar production, too bad.  Catch 22: You only get to have a quota if you already have a quota.  As for tariffs:  The 2008 Farm Bill says that 85% of total sugar in the U.S. must be produced domestically, and only 15% can be imported.  That 15% comes in through quotas distributed among about 20 countries.   Any other sugar they want to send us is subject to high tariffs, except from Mexico.  Under NAFTA, Mexico can export as much sugar to us as it wants to at the favored price.  But imported sugar is never supposed to exceed 15%.

International issues: Our agreement with the World Trade Organization (Uruguay Round) says we have to take a certain amount of world market sugar.  But the 2008 Farm Bill restricts imports.  Oops.  The contradictions in these policies still have to be resolved.  The processed food people think the USDA can raise the percentage.  Can it?  Hmmm.  We don’t know this yet.

Who benefits: A few thousand beet producers in about 15 states and a few hundred cane producers, and the sugar processors.  They get paid amounts that are higher than world market prices.   The countries that have sugar quotas also get higher prices for their sugar quotas.  Producers of sugar cane and beets love this system.   Florida cane producers defend it this way: “U.S. sugar policy ensures that jobs in rural America are not sent overseas, and that American consumers are not held captive by unreliable foreign suppliers of subsidized sugar.”  Like American-owned sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, for example?

Who loses: According to the Government Accountability Office, everyone in America pays higher prices for sugar than we need to.  This amounts to a transfer of wealth from 350 million of us to a few thousand sugar producers and processors.   International sugar-producing countries that do not have quotas, those in Africa, for example, are also out of luck.

How this happened: The system started out in the Great Depression with the best of intentions.  Despite endless attempts to get rid of sugar supports and let prices fluctuate according to the world market, Congress continues this elaborate and expensive system to protect sugar producers and processors.  These groups have banded together in cooperatives so they avoid anti-trust laws.   Even the New York Times thinks we should get rid of sugar protections.  These groups, of course, are among the most generous and powerful contributors to congressional election campaigns.  Even more, they are equal opportunity contributors: they give to both Democrats and Republicans.  The Fanjul family in Florida is especially influential.  In the best known example, Mr. Fanjul was able to get President Bill Clinton to take his call on a federal holiday when Clinton was in the midst of a tryst with Monica Lewinsky (source: the Starr report).

What about HFCS: The public now puts HFCS in the same category as trans fats: poison (it’s not; it’s just sugars).   In response, makers of processed foods and beverages are starting to replace it with cane and beet sugar.   As explained in the current Advertising Age, sugar is now at war with HFCS.  HFCS used to be a lot cheaper than sugar, but its cost has gone up as more of it is used for ethanol.  Supply is down; costs are up.

Other issues: As if all this wasn’t complicated enough, sugar beets are largely genetically modified, leading more than 70 companies to say they won’t use that sugar.  Sugar cane production in the Southern states pollutes the Everglades, leading to billions of dollars in clean up costs.  And the labor practices of sugar cane plantations have long been the subject of much investigative reporting.  And what about relations with Cuba?  Until the Castro revolution, we got nearly all of our imported sugar from our Caribbean neighbor.  If relations with Cuba improve, will that country have a quota?

So what’s really going on? Food processors want cheap ingredients.   Cheap sugar makes for relatively cheap junk foods and high profits for manufacturers.  Current sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace and we all ought to be eating less sugar anyway.  On average, we have about 70 pounds of sugar and another 70 of HFCS available per year for every man, woman, and child in the country along with a few pounds of other caloric sweeteners to boot.  That’s close to half a pound of sugary calories per day.   Less of all of them would be better, no? 

A final happy thought:  Maybe the processed food makers’ request – which is entirely self-interested – might lead to improvements in U.S. farm policy as well as relations with sugar-producing countries in the Caribbean and Africa.

Jun 8 2009

HFCS-free sales booming

Thanks to Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, for alerting me to the current HFCS-free sales boom.  HFCS, of course, is High Fructose Corn Syrup, the liquid sweetener made from corn (see previous posts).  Food marketers have gotten the message that many people consider HFCS to be the new trans fat, even though it is not much different biologically from common table sugar (sucrose).

HFCS is replaced easily by sucrose, which used to be much more expensive.  Now, because of the use of corn for ethanol, sucrose is only slightly more expensive than HFCS.

Click on the Table to see the overall 13% growth in sales over the last year, with products like HFCS-free milk drinks, juices, salad dressings, and teas registering 1,500% to 16,000% increases.  Like “trans fat-free,” the term “HFCS-free”  is a calorie distractor.  It too will make you forget about the calories.

The irony is that white table sugar – formerly a leading target of “eat less” messages – suddenly has a health aura.  Marketers have wasted no time moving in to use that aura to sell the same old products.

May 22 2009

HFCS is the new trans fat?

Will the confusion about sugars never end?  A recent study reconfirms the metabolic problems caused by too much fructose, but public opinion continues to blame High Fructose Corn Sweeteners (HFCS) as the new dietary evil.   HFCS isn’t really high in fructose.  It has about the same amount of fructose as common table sugar.   Both are about half fructose and half glucose, and both cause metabolic problems when you eat too much of them.  So go easy on the sugars!

Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the study.

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