High-fructose corn syrup quietly revolutionized food production—but its impact on consumers is still unknown

Barbeque sauce. Canned fruit. Strawberry jam. Cereal. Four very different food products, their makeups entirely unique. But like so many foods in America, they all share one thing: high-fructose corn syrup.

In fact, there is so much high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, in our food that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans ate 39.8 pounds of HFCS per capita in 2017 alone. And while that’s a 20-pound reduction from 2000, it’s still a significant amount of HFCS consumed per person in the U.S.

Yet most of us don’t even truly know what HCFS is or how and when it gets used. The processes in which it is made is largely confidential; the ingredient listing on nutrition labels can be difficult to find and understand; and the amount of food it’s used in is mostly unknown to the general public.

So, what do we know?

HFCS History

HFCS was first introduced in 1957 by Richard O. Marshall and Earl R. Kooi. The duo discovered the process of converting the glucose, a more bitter and less appealing flavor, in corn syrup to fructose, a much sweeter flavor. This made the sugar easier to use in products. 

But it wasn’t until the mid-‘70s that HFCS use really took off. According to the World Bank, between 1974 and 1981, the use of HFCS increased exponentially. One reason: traditional sugar costs were rising. The average price of sugar was 43 cents per kg, peaking at 66 cents in 1980. That was up from just 17 cents per kg in the late 1960s. The other reason: cane sugar is a powder, creating dust and making it harder to move through pipes.

HFCS, on the other hand, is produced largely in the United States, making it cheaper, according to the USDA. It’s also a liquid, creating a more convenient product to move and work with.

Dr. Ruth MacDonald, the department chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, says that HFCS “became preferred for processing applications because of [its liquid state].”

“Having a local source made it more convenient, more accessible, and the prices were lower. So it became basically a substitute for sugar.”

Coca-Cola and Pepsi quickly made the switch. So did Kraft and Hostess. Suddenly, everyone was consuming gobs of the stuff. So much so that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, from 1975 to 2000, consumption of HFCS increased 1,488 percent.

By the early to mid-2000s, HFCS use began to decline. It had garnered a reputation for being unhealthy. New studies were beginning to find that HFCS could be the reason for a sharp increase in obesity. Fear of the product increased so much that, according to an article in the New York Times in 2010, 55 percent of Americans labeled HFCS as one of their food-safety concerns, third behind mad cow disease and mercury in seafood.

HFCS consumption per capita in the United States from 1975 to 2000.

Then came the real backlash. A 2014 bill, labeled the SWEET Act, was introduced in the United States House of Representatives. It would impose a sugar tax— a one-cent tax for every 4.2 grams of caloric sweeteners added to foods. This was a direct attack on HFCS sweeteners. It had six co-sponsors, all Democrats. 

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a congresswoman representing the 2nd Congressional District in Connecticut, proposed the bill. “Excess calories, added sugars, and higher than recommended levels of sodium and fat are causing too many Americans to miss basic nutritional goals,” she said in a press release.

“My bill, the SWEET Act, places a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and uses the resulting tax revenue to fund programs and research to reduce diet-related diseases,” DeLauro continued.

Dr. John White, a researcher at White Technical Research, an international consulting firm that focuses on the food industry and consults the Corn Refiners Association, believes that this is a largely political bill. 

“Taxing sugars, taxing soft drinks. It is unlikely to stem obesity,” Dr. White says.

Despite some hype and media attention, the bill didn’t make it beyond the House floor. 

The Process

Making HFCS involves chemistry. Lots and lots of chemistry. Dr. MacDonald describes the process as a chemical enzyme conversion of corn starch, which is made up of a string of glucose molecules, into fructose molecules. 

“When our mouth tastes glucose, it doesn’t have a very sweet flavor,” Dr. MacDonald says. 

Because the glucose doesn’t have a sweet flavor, it doesn’t have a big appeal as an ingredient in foods. Scientists discovered that you can chemically convert the glucose into fructose, which is described as having a much more attractive flavor.
Graphic provided by the Corn Refiners Association showing the process of refining corn into different products.

“[Fructose] is the same structure, except maybe a little different orientation of the carbons in the ring, and it has a sweeter flavor,” Dr. MacDonald says.

Bonus: scientists discovered that they could convert this into a liquid form, making it easier to work with. 

How corn refiners achieve this is not exactly public knowledge—the process is confidential, according to Cargill, a large corn-refining corporation. However, according to this graphic provided by the Corn Refiners Association, they describe the process as “starch refining,” with little detail as to how that refining occurs. 

A study conducted in 2014 by Dr. White provides a little more insight. According to his graphic, the process is involved, with numerous steps that include carbohydrate extraction, hydrolysis, and a long purification process. That’s a lot of chemistry. 

The production process of HFCS according to Dr. John White,  a researcher at White Technical Research, an international consulting firm that focuses on the food industry.

Yet, when comparing the process of HFCS and cane sugar, cane sugar looks equally as complex. Numerous extractions, purification, and hydrolysis make up the process. “These are very complex, biological, botanical sources; they’ve got a lot of stuff in them,” Dr. White says. “There is significant processing that is required for both of them.”  

The production process of sugar cane and sugar beet, according to Dr. John White.

Obesity and HFCS

Corn syrup’s bad rep comes down to a matter of timing. Between 1970 and 2000, there was a significant increase in obesity rates in the United States. That also happens to correlate with the increase of HFCS. This has caused some to make the assumption that HFCS was a contributor to that increase in obesity. They might be right, though the science isn’t conclusive. 

In 1975, the percentage of males between the ages of 20 and 74 with obesity in the United States was hovering around 55 percent, while females were at about 42 percent. In 2000, 75 percent of males and 68 percent of females were obese. 

According to a 2004 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article by authors Dr. George Bray, Dr. Samara Nielsen, and Dr. Barry Popkin, “The increase in consumption of HFCS has a temporal relation to the epidemic of obesity, and the overconsumption of HFCS in calorically sweetened beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.” This article was the beginning of a large movement against the use of HFCS. 

Dr. White sees this as an example of correlation not equaling causation.

“If you look at sales of exercise equipment, you would see a positive correlation. Does that cause obesity? No,” Dr. White says.

Dr. Popkin, an author on the study, now agrees with White. In an interview with in 2009, he said that “we were wrong in our speculations on high-fructose corn syrup about their link to weight.”

Dr. MacDonald believes that HFCS has a role in the increase in obesity but also thinks there are a multitude of factors in play. She cites the replacement of fat with sugars as one reason. “We had a switch of mindset of, ‘Well, it doesn’t have fat in it, so it’s fine,’” Dr. MacDonald says. But carbohydrates—such as sugars—pack just as many, if not more, calories as fats.  

Dr. White talks about fat as a larger contributor to obesity than added sugars.

Then there’s the issue of portion size. Most people don’t actually eat one serving of, well, anything. “We get more calories than we should consume at most meals, and if you don’t moderate that, if you aren’t aware of the calorie content or what you are eating, pounds can add up pretty quickly,” Dr. MacDonald says. 

Richard Adcock, a spokesperson for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit group that advocates for safer and healthier foods, says, “High-fructose corn syrup is no better or worse than sucrose nutritionally—but added sugars in general are a hazard to public health in the U.S. and elsewhere, contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.”

Beyond adult obesity, child obesity is an even bigger concern. According to a survey from the United States Center of Disease Control, from 1980 to 2000, the percentage of children who were obese increased 10 percent among 6 to 19-year-old children. Children aged 2 to 5 saw a five percent increase.

A study conducted in 2013 by the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania attempted to link the rise in child obesity to the consumption of HFCS. While this study couldn’t conclude that the two had a relationship, Dr. MacDonald showed concern when discussing childhood obesity and the difficulty of reversing it.

“You don’t want to have children developing obesity at a young age. It causes all kinds of secondary health effects: heart disease, we see more kids with type two diabetes. Those are all bad things,” Dr. MacDonald says. 

Nutrition Labels

HFCS may not be the sole reason for obesity, but it is a contributing factor, and overconsumption can have negative results. 

But actually avoiding corn syrup is easier said than done. You can read food labels, sure, but the presence of HFCS isn’t always clear. The University of California in San Francisco found that there are at least 61 different names for added sugar on labels, including sucrose, barley malt, and dextrose. That’s a lot. And while manufacturers are required to disclose how much sugar is in a product, they aren’t required to disclose how much of that total comes from added sugar, such as HFCS.

Companies have tried to be more upfront about added sugar, some even using it as a marketing ploy. Soft drinks have released throwback versions of their drinks, branding them as having “real sugar,” and Kraft has removed added sugars from its Capri Sun kids drinks.

Others, like the Iowa Corn Refiners Association, tried to change public opinion about corn syrup. It launched an ad campaign in 2008 explaining HFCS and its similarity to table sugar. Their main point was that HFCS is no worse for you than real sugar. 

The missing underlying point: HFCS is only OK in moderation. There may be little evidence to suggest that HFCS is worse for you than natural sugar, but it sure isn’t healthier. The key to a healthy diet: eat quality meals.

“Limit your access to empty calories; those are the things that have a lot of calories but not a lot of nutrients. Sweets and sugar-sweetened calories for sure,” Dr. MacDonald says.

“We should enjoy food. It’s an important part of our lives. And to just cut off certain kinds of foods [completely] is not the best way to have a healthy diet.”