I. Basics of Sugar
Human has inmate craving for sweetness. Pure sugar is very rare in the nature. Large scale sugarcane cultivation and sugar production starting in 1500s greatly increased the amount of sugar available worldwide. Abundance of sugar presented great joy to mankind, and at the same time, poses an unprecedented challenge as human body is not designed to process large amount of pure sugar in diet.
Words with suffix of “ose” denote sugar. Three most simple kinds of sugars exist. They are glucose, fructose and galactose[wiki]. Different combinations of those three basic building blocks make up most of the sugars we see in every day life, such as table sugar(either from sugar cane or sugar beet) and lactose(sugar in milk). Sometimes you see Dextrose on ingredient list. Dextrose is the only kind of glucose which exists in nature. Those three basic kinds of sugar can be easily absorbed into bloodstream and are the result of digestion of other food or more complex sugar.
II. Liquid Sweetener: HFCS
If you take a look at Coca-cola bottle, the list of ingredients are: [Coca-cola website]
carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural flavours, caffeine.
Its websites states that[Coca-cola website]
HFCS is a sweetener derived from corn. High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose.
It is widely used in many manufactured food or drinks. It becomes news that something sweet does not use HFCS, such as when Starbucks dropped HFCS from its coffees in June 2009. Total HFCS consumption in 2010 is estimated by USDA to be 7.9MM short tons, or 51lb per capita.
Where does this stuff come from? Corn.
As the name suggests, HFCS comes from corn. High-fructose corn syrup is produced by wet milling corn to produce corn starch, then processing that starch to yield corn syrup, which is almost entirely glucose, and then adding enzymes that change some of the glucose into fructose.[wiki]
Why fructose is intentionally added? To make it sweeter.
Fructose is the sweetest among all naturally occurring carbohydrate. Pure glucose is not as sweet as table sugar. HFCS with 42% fructose has the exact same sweetness as table sugar.[wiki]
Why not simply table sugar? Economics and some functional advantages
US sugar market is highly regulated and distorted. Domestic restriction on sugar production, strict import quota and stiff tariff makes table sugar in US much more expensive than that in the world market. HFCS is made from corn which is heavily subsidized in US by farm subsidies. Since 1995, average HFCS 42’s price is 70% of that of US domestic raw sugar. More specifically, HFCS 42’ average price from 1995 to 2010 was 15.53 US cents per lb while US raw sugar is 22.24.[USDA].
HFCS can enhance shelf life of baked goods. It also can producer softer baked goods. Soft cookies were possible due to HFCS. It is easier to handle and transport liquid and more stable HFCS than solid table sugar[Article on www.foodproductdesign.com]
When did this thing get started? Around 1980.
Industrial production of HFCS was invented in Japan around 1970. It was then quickly adopted by US food and beverage companies during the early 1980s as it was significantly cheaper than US domestic table sugar. Coca-Cola and Pepsi both switched to HFCS in their US soda production in 1984.
What else may exist in HFCS? Varies. Some contains mercury.
Production process of HFCS uses many other chemicals. With key aspects of the HFCS manufacturing process considered proprietary information, it is impossible to know exactly what chemicals are being used and what contaminants exist except direct testing. An 2009 article published on Environmental Health reported that 9 out of 20 HFCS samples contains mercury which may result from an outdated production technology for a few of the chemicals used in HFCS production[EH]. For an average US HFCS consumer, the daily mercury exposure from those HFCS with detectable levels of mercury ranges from slightly more than that of dental amalgam to about ten folds.
Good? Bad? Ugly? Very Likely Bad. May be Ugly in large quantity.
It, for the first time in mankind, introduced large amount of free fructose into ordinary diet as free fructose is usually only found in fruits and honey which are not consumed in large quantity in general. It also differs from table sugar in its fructose to glucose ratio. HFCS in most applications contains 55% of fructose and 45% of glucose while table sugar always contains exactly 50% of each.
In 2004, concerns were first raised over the possible link between HFCS and obesity[paper]. The reason proposed was that fructose is metabolized differently from glucose and does not trigger insulin and leptin secretion. It is observed that the obesity epidemic coincides with the commercial introduction of HFCS. In 2010, researches funded by US government at Princeton University singled out HFCS as major contributing factor to obesity observed in test animals, rats[news]. The research found that everything else being equal, just by replacing table sugar with HFCS in drinks, rats have much higher chance of getting obesity. Long term free access to HFCS causes significant deterioration of rat’s health, including fat being deposited to belly area. The exact mechanism for this is not clear yet.
Princeton researchers speculated that the difference comes from the fact that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles.
However, the availability of HFCS in diet across the world does not correlates with obesity rate very well geographically[Paper]. Mexico had overweight level almost as high as that in US while its HFCS consumption is only 5% of its total sugar intake level[Forbes].
Even though there is some outliers in the correlation of HFCS share of sweeteners and obesity in different countries, too many factors could be the potential causes. From our knowledge of human metabolism, understanding of fructose and experiments on rats, HFCS is likely to be a significant contributor to obesity epidemic in US.
My take: Consumers, limit your intake as much as you can and call customer services of your favorite food to request a table sugar version.
The cost saving from using HFCS was about 3.75 USD per capita per year in the last 16 years. However, given that it is very likely that HFCS contributes significantly to current obesity epidemic and the enormous costs obesity brings to everybody in terms of higher health insurance premium, health complication such as diabetes and heart disease and lost productivities, it is no brainers that we should try to avoid it, even if it means more effort and higher prices now.
How to reduce HFCS consumption? A few ways with varying costs.
1.Cut soda size and drink less frequently.
For every 12 oz of soda(in a can), there exists 39 grams of HFCS. Considering all other HFCS intake, the average daily amount of 61 gram in US can be easily reached if you drink 12 oz of soda daily. Drink no more than that! Direct cost of this method is minimal. The main challenge is to find an alternative to soda if you really like sweet taste. As Coca-cola does not produce table sugar based soda, you may have to drink fruit juice, coffee or tea, sweetened by table sugar. “Sugar in the raw” sugar by US food service is available in many places. Its packet contains 5 gram of relatively less processed table sugar, one eighth of that in a can of Coca-cola.
2. Eat less soft cookies. Choose hard ones with no HFCS.
Cost of this varies. Main issue is how much you really like soft cookies.
3. Check the label and call your favorite product manufacturers to provide a version made with table sugar.
Check the label before buying, especially those you buy often. Make phone calls. If enough people do it, the manufacturers are likely to respect your wish. The method requires some effort but almost no cost.
4. Shop at Whole Foods Market and Earthfare if you can afford. Also Starbuck coffee does not have HFCS but its beverages may have. Some websites have list of HFCS free items.