As a parent, you’re always hearing about the laundry list of ingredients and toxic chemicals you should avoid in your kid’s diet. Things like artificial food dyes, GMO’s, pesticides, antibiotics, arsenic, and one of the worst offenders: high-fructose corn syrup.
Although you’ve definitely heard of it, you might be wondering what is high-fructose corn syrup anyway? And is it really that bad for your kid’s health? Here are answers to those questions and more.
In this blog post, I’ll cover:
1. What is high-fructose corn syrup?
2. The types of foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
3. Why high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you and your kids.
HIGHT-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP DEFINITION
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one of the over 61 different types of added sugars.
According to the FDA, high-fructose corn syrup is:
“… derived from corn starch. Starch itself is a chain of glucose molecules (a simple sugar) joined together.
When corn starch is broken down into individual glucose molecules, the end product is corn syrup, which is essentially 100% glucose.
To make HFCS, enzymes are added to corn syrup to convert some of the glucose to another simple sugar called fructose, also called “fruit sugar” because it occurs naturally in fruits and berries.
HFCS is ‘high’ in fructose compared to the pure glucose that is in corn syrup. Different formulations of HFCS contain different amounts of fructose.”
Dr. Mark Hyman offers a really simple explanation of how the body processes high-fructose corn syrup.
For starters, the glucose and fructose in cane sugar are bound together in equal amounts, whereas with high-fructose corn syrup, there’s a higher ratio of fructose and the two molecules are unbound.
The enzymes in the digestive tract break down glucose and fructose from cane sugar and are then absorbed into the body.
Since the two molecules are unbound in high-fructose corn syrup, however, they don’t have to be digested and they’re absorbed into the body at a much faster rate. They go straight to the liver, where they produce triglycerides and cholesterol. This process can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that’s on the rise in kids.
HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP IS BIG BUSINESS IN THE U.S.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of buzz about high-fructose corn syrup but it’s actually an ingredient that’s been in use since 1967.
Since high fructose corn syrup is government-subsidized, it’s cheap to make and profitable.
The largest consumer of high-fructose corn syrup in the world is North America.
According to a recent report, the U.S. market for the sweetener is estimated to be worth $1.3 billion in 2020 and shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, a report by Mordor Intelligence found the global high-fructose corn syrup is expected to grow at a rate of 4.80% between 2020-2025.
WHAT FOODS CONTAIN HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP?
Not only does high-fructose corn syrup make food sweeter, but food manufacturers use the sweetener because it offers more flavor, stability, freshness, texture, pour-ability, color, and consistency in foods than cane sugar, according to a December 2009 study in the Journal of the American College Of Nutrition.
High-fructose corn syrup is used in sweet foods, processed foods, and foods you’d least expect to find it. These include:
- Canned fruit
- Granola bars
- Ice cream
- Salad dressings
- Sodas and sweetened beverages
- Sports drinks
Related: How to Choose A Healthy Kids’ Yogurt
WHY IS HIGH—FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP BAD?
Like regular cane sugar, research links the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup to a host of chronic health problems.
A landmark April 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was the first to show a link between high-fructose corn syrup consumption and the obesity epidemic.
Yet a few years later, Barry M. Popkin, one of the study authors, pulled back on his theory, The New York Times reported.
Then in 2008, the American Medical Association (AMA), also came out to say that it’s unlikely that high fructose corn syrup contributes more to obesity or other health conditions than regular sugar, and there’s insufficient evidence to limit it or use warning labels on food.
Still, the debate around high-fructose corn syrup and its health effects persisted.
According to a February 2010 study out of Princeton University, rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, despite consuming the same amount of calories.
The same study also found that long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially abdominal fat, and an increase in triglycerides, or fats that circulate in the bloodstream.
HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP & FATTY LIVER DISEASE
Studies suggest the high-fructose corn syrup is harmful to the liver.
An October 2020 study in the journal Nature Metabolism, which was conducted in mice, suggests consuming a high amount of fructose can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
RISK FACTORS FOR HEART DISEASE
Studies show consumption of high-fructose corn syrup can also lead to type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
According to a 2018 review in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, consumption of fructose increases the risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Another recent study out of the University of California, Davis found the combination of fructose and glucose that make up high-fructose corn syrup seems to be worse than fructose alone for some risk factors for heart disease.
DOES HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP CONTAIN MERCURY?
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies mercury, a toxic metal that has been linked to a host of health problems and can have adverse effects on a child’s nervous, digestive, and immune systems, as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals that are a public health concern.
Studies show some foods with high-fructose corn syrup also contain mercury.
A January 2009 study in the journal Environmental Health found toxic levels of mercury in food samples containing high-fructose corn syrup.
Yet just a few months later, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), a national trade association that represents the corn refining industry, announced that independent testing and expert review showed no detectable levels of the toxin in food samples with the sweetener.
SHOULD YOU AVOID HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP?
Although much debate continues to exist around high-fructose corn syrup and its harmful effects on our health, there’s no question that limiting any type of added sugar in our—and our kids’ diets—is ideal.
Less demand for high-fructose corn syrup in recent years is promising, but it seems that it’s simply been replaced with sugar.
In fact, according to a 2017 report by the USDA, between 2015 and 2016, consumption of refined sugar increased by 6 percent.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say kids should get less than 10 percent of their total daily calories from sugar, yet most kids are getting much more.
Since foods that contain high fructose corn syrup also lack the nutrition kids need to grow and develop at a healthy rate, it’s one more reason to limit or avoid the sweetener altogether. Here are some ideas:
- Serve up real, whole, healthy foods like fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables, unprocessed sources of protein, nuts, and seeds, and other healthy fats like avocado.
- Limit processed foods, soda, sweetened beverages, and sports/energy drinks.
- Become an avid label reader to spot high-fructose corn syrup in unlikely foods like cereal, canned fruit, salad dressings, condiments, granola bars, soups, yogurt, bread, and peanut butter.
- Cook and prepare healthy meals at homemade with whole foods and avoid processed, prepared foods and ingredients.
- Make your own healthy, homemade sweets and desserts with upgraded, lower sugar ingredients like bananas, unsweetened applesauce, and dried fruit with no added sugar.