by Marion Nestle
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?

  • Cathy Richards

    Dr Katz’s article this week is about the “a sugar by any other name” debate.
    It’s the Shakespeare and Sheep article.

  • AJ Huff

    Hi Marion, it’s been a long time since I had chemistry and as a metallurgist my concentrations is the exact opposite of organic chemistry. But isn’t there as double bond between the fructose and glucose molecules in sucrose and a single bond between the two sugars in HFCS? or do I have that backwards? I seem to remember that it takes more energy to break a double bond than a single bond, so how can that be insignificant, i.e. how can HFCS be claimed to be the same as sucrose if those molecular bonds are different?

  • Marion

    @AJ Huff: sucrose is a disaccharide, a double sugar but no double bonds. The sugars in HFCS are not bonded. They are single sugars.

  • Phil

    I do not understand why you listed genetic modification as an issue? I think it is totally irresponsible to reject this type of technology and instead urging consumers to buy organic, local, natural, non GMO, antibiotic free,….You are asking consumers to reject modern high yield agriculture, science & technology. In other words, you are asking consumers to reject convenience, variety and inexpensive food!!!! Your position is irresponsible and dangerous, given the fact we are living in world with increasing food demand, huge urbanization and limited resources (land, water,…)

  • Suzanne

    I have to wonder Phil, who is paying your salary?

  • Gregg

    My objection to high fructose corn syrup has always been its presence in products that seem to have no need for it. Specifically, I’m thinking about breads and baked potato chips among others. My unconfirmed feeling has been that its near ubitiquous presence was more a function of the food industry’s investment in it as opposed to the need to provide sweetening.

    I do think, however, that the flavor of products (that require sweetening) made with cane sugar, as opposed to corn sugar, taste better.

  • Phil

    Suzanne, Your question is irrelevant. Tell me just one thing that I wrote that is not correct… If you are reday to argue, bring it on!!!

  • Maybe they could call it “low glucose corn syrup,” or better, “low dextrose corn syrup” instead of “high fructose corn syrup” (after all, ounce for ounce, it is lower in glucose/dextrose than regular corn syrup). This would solve many issues by both increasing consumer confusion and obfuscating the issue in the opposite direction, since whatever people might think dextrose to be, they would likely conclude that less of it is better. By the way, during WWII when cane/beet sugar was short and corn was patriotic, lots of foods (and candies especially) proudly proclaimed “high in dextrose for extra energy!” See for example this fantastic 1942 LIFE magazine ad (“Dextrose is an ALL-AMERICAN sugar, derived from American Corn…):

  • I, too, wonder who pays your salary, Phil… especially after you dodged the question.

    I noticed that you were careful to avoid the issue of whether GM foods are safe, since they most certainly are not!

    I will let Jeffrey Smith present my case against GMO foods.

  • I’m not going into this discussion with the intent on arguing with Phil, but I thought I’d toss a few points to anyone who might.

    Modern agriculture is high-yield and our population is increasing. However, from my understanding we have and have had for a long time, a surplus of food. We get so much out of an acre of GM corn we try to turn it into everything from gas to plastic. This raises food prices on both corn products and fruits and vegetables which compete for farm land.

    Additionally, while you can show up at a farm and remark at how many bushels are coming off of one acre, you don’t witness the massive amounts of acreage used to support that GM, chemical-laced acre of corn.

    You see, GM/pesticide corn production involves a host of inputs that require far more inputs. Pesticides require acres of natural gas and water for their synthesis. Oil is need to transport this product to the farm and more is need to apply it. The whole process generates more chemical waste, which then needs to be dealt with on more acres.

    Meanwhile, farmers are paying tithes to the chemical and seed manufactures who consolidate their markets and further stratify our economic society. This heightens class differences and drives poverty which drives hunger. Our diets become such that the lowest in wealth must subsist on a diet of processed GM corn and soy while they watch vegetable prices creep up. The result is a US that is subsidizing its own malnourishment while collapse foreign markets with its cheap, high-yield GM agriculture. Food security drops in developing nations, enter natural disaster (earthquake, flood) and famine strikes.

    We can continue to utilize high-yield GMs to overproduce, but it will do nothing for a growing population without distribution and often exasperates the problem. In a crude analogy, we drown the thirsty.

    I think we had enough food before GMOs.

    But that’s just my 2 cents.

  • *collapsing

  • Sheila

    I suspect the FDA will find a way to sit on the fence, leave the crop subsidies in place, and let the market decide which sugar(s) the consumers want to consume in excess.

  • DennisP

    My experience is that all processed foods, and most recipes for home-cooked foods, contain FAR more sugar – of whatever type – than any of us needs to eat. Any recipe that we use, we automatically cut the sugar by half or more. We can’t really notice any difference in taste. We avoid HFCS but I’m thinking the total sugar intake is probably far more important than the makeup of the sugars.

  • Pete

    GM foods about “feeding the world” LOL! That’s a good one. If that were the case, why all the fuss over patents and “seed saving”? It’s about controlling agriculture, plain and simple. It’s all about how I can “own” a technology or even a seed. Imagine! Owning a seed. How preposterous.

    HFCS is a cheap way to make cheap food taste better. Sodium preserves shelf life and HFCS covers up the salty taste. We can debate all day if HFCS is better or worse than Cane sugar, but who cares really. The damage ANY sugar does to your body isn’t worth the taste. Yes, yes… call me a Price Person, but the man made some good points. What do we need sugar for when there is Stevia?! Unless you are purposefully looking to spike insulin for some reason (some people are).

  • Cathy Richards

    Hey Phil,

    In North America we spend a smaller percentage of our salaries on food than we ever have.

    I prefer to pay farmers, not corporations, fair wages for their food. Sustainable farming is an important part of a diverse food system and helps preserve green spaces near cities — an important public health issue. Most government subsidies go towards crops that are used in processed food. Few subsidies go to sustainable farmers.

    Convenience is nice so that fuel efficient trucks deliver food close to my neighborhood (individual car trips are a major source of food related green house gasses), but convenience isn’t that nice if it means the product can stay on the shelf for months and months.

    Re: world hunger? Poverty? We grow enough food on the planet, we just don’t distribute it properly. I’ve never seen someone truly involved in solving hunger issues that says there’s a supply shortage, only distribution problems.

    I could go on. I won’t.

  • Suzanne

    We’ve all come to this blog because we recognize the authority Dr. Nestle brings to the proverbial table when discussing issues of nutrition and food safety. She is fully transparent in identifying the interests she represents. I wish agri-business professionals who are paid to counter her views would identify themselves as such. Bias is an important factor in evaluating whether a position one takes is credible.

  • Oh Lord, I can not believe somebody named Phil reads Dr. Nestle and dares to challenge her and her so intelligent and concern readers…..So if we have less land what are we supposed to eat? our walls? toxic fumes?…….There are agro-bio-intensive techniques promoted by John Jeavons to grow more food in less space, YOUR OWN food. I had witness people living on this so called auto-sustainability. Perhaps this is what we all need to do to stop paying Phil’s salary….

  • Phil

    You guys crack me up. You are all obsess with my salary. I am making a great living. Thank you very much. To my knowledge, there has not been a single case of a human getting sick as a result of eating GM foods since the introduction of this technology in 1996. it is the most scrutinized food out there. It takes more than 10 years to get all the approvals required. You complain that this technology is in the hands of just a few MNC. Well, it is because of people like you: The regulatory process is extremely costly and lenghty. Therefore, it is very hard, unfortunately, for smaller players to enter the game. Anyway, I don’t want to go backwards and start eating the same foods my ancestors used to eat. We have the safest food system in the world, regardless of what you read in the media. I am not saying that you should not eat organic. If you want to spend your money to do so, that’s your right. But don’t prevent me my access to cheap, good quality food.

  • Monique Kovalenko

    I wonder if anyone has pointed out to Marion that the Corn Refiner’s Association has her quoted at the very top of their Expert’s page here: Oh boy.

  • Suzanne

    I could care less about your salary, Phil, only that your employer sends you here. Frankly, I come here to avoid the propaganda your employer generates. Your obfuscation of my initial question and lack of response tells the story. Yes, I will pay more for organic food, it’s a fair price, not an artificially subsidized price. I am more concerned about a fair price for farmers who practice sustainable agriculture than profit for share holders and to please a corporate board.

    For you to ignore the voluminous research regarding genetically modified food is laughable, but in these tough times, employer loyalty is probably an asset to you.

  • Kelly

    HA! HA! HA! That is incredible!

    “I wonder if anyone has pointed out to Marion that the Corn Refiner’s Association has her quoted at the very top of their Expert’s page here: Oh boy.”

  • Kelly

    Sorry Phil,
    I agree with the majority. The vast majority of Americans are not suffering from food shortages.

    We need better quality of food that is sustainable for future generations. Not merely an abundance of inexpensive low-quality food that depletes our natural resources.

  • Jon

    Isn’t a key issue with fructose, from a biochemistry standpoint, that it bypasses the normal regulatory methods that are run through glucose? When glucose enters the blood, it triggers a whole host of responses (insulin release, for one thing) to get it out of the blood and into cells. Fructose on the other hand, does not make a key metabolite that is essential for this regulation and is induced into the cells much more slowly, and as a result hangs out in the bloodstream for far longer. This has serious implications for the sugar-related and insulin resistant disease thats on everyone’s mind when we talk about HFCS – diabetes. The longer the sugar is out in the blood the more opportunity it has to do damage to our body.

  • AJ Huff

    Thanks Marion. But isn’t that a still significant difference? Doesn’t it take more energy to break the bond in sucrose to separate the two sugars for further processing than to start with the two sugars already separated?

  • Kelly

    I believe that once fructose is absorbed in the small intestine, it makes a short journey to the liver where it is immediately converted into glucose. I am not sure that it would have the opportunity to do any damage in circulation because it isn’t there for very long (as fructose).

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