SciTech

Things That Are Killing Us: High-fructose corn syrup

It is often difficult for us to conceptualize how things around us impact us. We produce, use, and consume at rates that are too fast for us to truly understand just how far-reaching the effects of our innovations are. We have to go through each of these issues one at a time to truly understand the scale of everything wrong. For this week, let’s take a look at:

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup is trickier than the subjects covered in the last two iterations of this column. Whereas microplastics and P.M2.5 particles are obvious environmental pollutants with clear negative health outcomes, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar as a whole, is a staple for us.

When referring to sugar, there are three terms that need to be distinguished. There is glucose, which is the most basic kind and abundant kind of carbohydrate known as a monosaccharide. This is found in your blood sugar and is essential for metabolic function. Then there is fructose (not the same thing as high-fructose corn syrup), which is also a monosaccharide. This sugar naturally appears in many foods like fruits, as well as other naturally sweet foods like sugar cane and sugar. The combination of fructose and glucose creates sucrose, which is a disaccharide and your basic table sugar that you have in your home.

High-fructose corn syrup is not like table sugar. It is an alternative liquid sweetener that is a combination of fructose, glucose, cornstarch, and water. It is significantly sweeter than your average table sugar, and it was first introduced in beverages and foods in the 1970s. It eventually became a replacement for sucrose until the mid-1990s. But the difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose is not too far apart. High-fructose corn syrup is a combination of 55 percent fructose to 45 percent glucose, whereas sucrose has equal parts fructose and glucose.

The main reason for the acceptance of high-fructose corn syrup usage was because high-fructose corn syrup was more stable in acidic food and drinks, making it much more versatile. The ingredients were also taken from corn, which is a staple crop in the Midwest; it was easily mass producible and would be less volatile in price and expensive to make than common sugar.

Additionally, in 1973, there was a major oil crisis when members in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) placed an oil embargo on all the countries who supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. The demand in the U.S. grew for alternative sources of fuel. One emerging option was corn-based ethanol. The increased demand for corn-based ethanol and the acceptance of high-fructose corn syrup by food manufacturers led to corn becoming the most planted crop in the U.S.

The public commonly associates high-fructose corn syrup with the obesity epidemic. It is true that there are severe health risks associated with high-fructose corn syrup. One study showed that adults who consumed high-fructose corn syrup products had decreased insulin sensitivity, which can lead to increased risk of diabetes. However, it is not the primary driver of obesity in the U.S.

All sugar consumption isn’t necessarily from high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, even though high-fructose corn syrup was replaced with sucrose all the way until 1993, sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup have been used in relatively equal amounts since 1998. Obesity is impacted by the consumption of every kind of sugar because sugar comes from many sources other than high fructose corn syrup. The effect of high-fructose corn syrup on the human body is not a unique one.

According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 77 grams of sugar per day, which adds up to 60 pounds of sugar per year. The recommended daily amount of sugar for men is 36 grams while the recommended amount for women is 25 grams. Sugar is empty calories, and products that are high in sugar do not have nutritional value.

By now, the use of corn isn’t even primarily for high-fructose corn syrup. Forty percent of corn in the U.S. is used for biofuels and 36 percent is used for animal feed, with most of the rest being exported. Only a small fraction is used for consumption by the American consumer, and most of it is for high-fructose corn syrup. Not much of our corn is going to high-fructose corn syrup, which isn’t even the main cause of the obesity crisis, and even less is actually being eaten by Americans.

High-fructose corn syrup may not be killing us directly. But sugar is. One study linked upwards of 180,000 deaths to sugary drinks alone. Obesity kills 2.8 million people each year worldwide. Biofuels may be more efficient than regular fossil fuels, but the sheer amount of corn needed to produce that much ethanol is causing wide scale ecological and environmental degradation. Mass production and mass consumption have consequences. Production for corn-based products may have been intended to make things easier for people, but it is no longer sustainable today.

And it is killing us.