The History of High Fructose Corn Syrup
Carol is a registered dietitian, independent consultant, member of the CRA RD Panel and writer in Long Beach, California. With thirty years of experience in the field of food and nutrition, Carol supports many food and nutrition companies, conducts interviews on a variety of health topics, and offers her freelance writing skills to many publications.
In the last few decades, we as a society have become disconnected from where our food comes from and how certain ingredients came to be. There is resurgence of curiosity in the “history of food” but for the most part, many stay in the dark on this fascinating subject. The history of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), however, has had an interesting journey.
The HFCS history began in the late 1950s. This new sweetener was perfected over the next few years and then introduced into the US food system in 1970. At this time, cane and beet sugar (or sucrose) were the primary sweeteners in the United States. However, in the 70’s, due to the political environment in some cane sugar producing countries (i.e. trade restrictions), climate challenges and general price conditions, cane sugar became cost prohibitive. In looking for alternatives, it was realized that the sugars from a popular US crop, corn, could be substituted for cane sugar in various foods and beverages.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Process
Most are unsure of how high fructose corn syrup is made. HFCS actually comes from “dent” corn, a breed that is not consumable until the high fructose corn syrup process is complete. It is a starchy hard corn used to make maize, thus tortillas and chips. The dent corn is cleaned, soaked, ground, washed, dried, milled and turned into cornstarch. The cornstarch is then made into liquid corn syrup (mostly glucose) utilizing hydrolysis. An enzymatic process turns some of this glucose into fructose. HFCS is ‘high’ in fructose compared to the pure glucose that is in corn syrup but has about the same amount of fructose as sucrose. Currently, there are two main types of HFCS, HFCS-42 (42% fructose and used in baked and canned foods), HFCS-55 (55% fructose and used in beverages).
Most of us don’t realize the importance of sweeteners in the food industry. We often take for granted important aspects of how we perceive and enjoy foods and beverages. How about flavor, texture, browning, preservation or fermentation? Here are some examples of high fructose corn syrup uses:
Flavor: A great example of flavor and sweeteners is tomato sauce, a blend of many varieties from different growing environments and seasons. For a consistent flavor (that consumers expect) when these are blended, added sweeteners are used. Sweeteners also help cut the acidity of many tomato products.
Texture: In baked goods, added sweeteners provide the crisp texture or in many cases, the tender, delicate mouth-feel we enjoy. Candies and ice cream also rely on various types of HFCS sweeteners for the smooth sensation (ice cream) or slightly grainy texture as in fudge.
Browning: Color (and flavor) is produced when added sweeteners like HFCS and proteins interact with heat. This is known as the browning (Maillard) reaction, important in candy making, baking and other processes. The Maillard reaction is a very complex process that provides a simple pleasure, such as a dark, rich crust on brown bread.
Preservation: Sweeteners are necessary in baked good to prevent drying out and staleness. In jams and jellies, they prevent microbial growth. In canned goods, added sweeteners prevent oxidation and deterioration of firmness and color.
Fermentation: Yeast consumes sweeteners such as HFCS in a thoroughly natural process called "fermentation." This is a vital reaction needed for bread rising and baking and alcoholic beverage production.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption and Nutrition
In looking at the big picture of sweetener consumption, USDA data shows that from the 1970s through 2000, high fructose corn syrup consumption generally increased and cane and beet sugar consumption decreased. Interestingly since 2003, HFCS consumption has declined while cane and beet sugar has held steady or increased.
In addition, calories in the American diet have increased from 2076 per day in 1970 to 2534 in 2010. This is an increase of 458 calories. However of these 458 calories, added sugar accounts for 34 calories with the majority coming from added fats (242) and flour and cereal products (167).
Sweeteners such as cane and beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, fruit concentrates, and honey are in the foods and beverages for a variety of reasons and we eat these foods for many reasons as well. Understanding the nutrition, uses, process and history of high fructose corn syrup will help you manage whatever your preference is for sweeteners. It is also important to remember:
- all are equivalent in terms of nutrition (4 calories per gram)
- Your body cannot distinguish between them once ingested. And finally
- if your weight or other health conditions are a concern, cut back on all sweeteners as a nutrition goal.
RD Panel members provide general dietary information, but you should consult your own physician or dietitian for advice concerning your particular circumstance.