HFCS is no more ‘corn syrup’ than it is ‘sugar’

Posted by
February 25, 2014

The makers of Karo corn syrup want you to know that their product contains NO high fructose corn syrup!

The makers of Karo corn syrup want you to know that their product contains NO high fructose corn syrup!


The misinformation muddle over exactly what high fructose corn syrup is – and isn’t – seems to have reached an exasperating new level these days, as yet another erroneous designation for this laboratory-created sweetener is increasingly circulated by media.

It’s certainly been confusing enough to see various news organizations – as well as researchers and politicians – insist on using terms like “sugary drinks” and “sugar-sweetened beverages” in referring to products that contained not an iota of actual sugar, but a whole lot of HFCS.

And things were made even more misleading by the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) campaign to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar” – a proposed name change ultimately rejected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA ruled both that HFCS is not sugar, and also that the name “corn sugar” was already taken by a substance known as dextrose.

But now the confusion has been further compounded – in fact, entered a whole new dimension – with the repeated use of the misnomer “corn syrup” by various news organizations in describing this industrial additive.But, you might ask, isn’t “corn syrup” simply an abbreviated term for “high fructose corn syrup”?  The answer is most decidedly not.

Corn syrup, as it turns out, has been around for ages – it’s a common commodity you can buy in just about any supermarket, and is used as an ingredient in certain homemade confections – pecan pie, for example. It’s also occasionally listed as an ingredient in various products.

High fructose corn syrup, by contrast, has only been in use since the 1980s, when it was introduced into soft drinks and processed foods as a cheaper replacement for sugar (or sucrose). And it’s never been marketed in retail outlets to consumers – it’s only available to food processors (and beekeepers).

Oh, and one other thing.  Traditional corn syrup is 100 percent glucose, and contains no fructose. On the other hand, high fructose corn syrup has quite a bit.  While it supposedly consists of a ratio of 55 percent fructose to 45 percent glucose, amounts of fructose have been found in HFCS beverages to be higher. One brand of HFCS is advertised as containing 90 percent fructose. And fructose, as you’re probably aware, is now considered by many scientists and health experts to be the principal bad actor among caloric sweeteners in promoting obesity and illness.

Now, defenders of HFCS like to point out that fruit contains fructose and that sugar is a half glucose half-fructose combo.  But the fructose in fruit is bound in with the fiber and other components, and the two components of sugar are also chemically bound together, whereas in HFCS they are not, making the fructose much more easily absorbed.

So when it comes to both uses and health concerns, there is a huge amount of difference between high fructose corn syrup and plain, kitchen-variety corn syrup. But that hasn’t stopped both reporters and headline writers (who are also copy editors, and whose job also involves correcting such mistakes) from repeatedly using the term” corn syrup” when HFCS is what they’re really talking about.

In fact, even columnists have joined the ranks of the befuddled – such as the one in Connecticut who noted how his family had used corn syrup back when he was a kid, and who couldn’t for the life of him understand what all the current controversy was about.

Now, admittedly, having two products that sound so much alike can easily lend itself to confusion – just as can the FDA’s lumping together of all caloric sweetening agents as “sugars” (plural) can cause anyone writing or talking about this subject to think that means the same thing as “sugar” (singular).  And of course, all those uses of the now officially verboten term “corn sugar” in the CRA’s “Sweet Surprise” advertising and public relations blitz to try to convince us that HFCS is not only natural, but safe (in spite of many researchers’ conclusions to the contrary) haven’t helped dispel the fog.

But, with a little help from this blog, you as a conscientious consumer need not be confused or confounded about the true identity of high fructose corn syrup.  First of all, it’s neither “sugar” nor “corn sugar” – and the soft drinks and other beverages in which it has become a substitute for sugar are neither “sugary” not “sugar-sweetened”. Second, it’s not your mother’s (and grandmother’s) “corn syrup.”  It’s in a category all of its own – and not anything you can pick up on your next trip to the supermarket, except as an ingredient in (still) far too many processed products.