A Quest for Food – Giving It Up for Health

October 20, 2009

Our second guest post in the Quest for Food Series is from Cathy at A Life Less Sweet. She is here to share some of her family’s journey to reduce their consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Her background in chemical engineering gives her a unique perspective on the topic. If you are confused at all about this ingredient she will clear it up for you as well as show you how reducing one ingredient common in packaged foods can change your diet completely; for the better, of course.

A little over a year and a half ago, my family had a diet not unlike much of America. Though we thought a bit about our food, our diet was loaded with processed foods. I’ve done some pretty extreme diets before for my kiddos who each had major food intolerances as infants, but everyone could finally eat what they wanted…and we did. Then the background noise about HFCS finally sunk into my brain, and I started looking into this ingredient. I didn’t like the information that I found, and we decided to give up foods containing HFCS cold turkey. We’ve been on a food journey ever since, and we aren’t looking back!

What is HFCS?

Do you know what this mysterious ingredient that shows up in everything from stewed tomatoes to soda is? High fructose corn syrup is a liquid mixture of two different sugars – glucose and fructose. High fructose corn syrup usually contains about a 50% mixture of the two, though it can have a little more or less fructose depending on the buyer’s needs. Regular corn syrup is only glucose – no fructose. To produce high fructose corn syrup, a corn kernel is manipulated and taken through a complicated series of reactions and processes until it has been transformed into the sugary goo.

How is HFCS different from sugar?

Table sugar – aka sucrose – is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. That’s a fancy way of saying that glucose and fructose are bound together to form a single molecule. Table sugar consists of a 50/50 mixture of glucose and fructose bound to each other. High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, contains free glucose and fructose. So, while sucrose and HFCS both contain about 50/50 fructose and glucose, they are not the same.

Does this make a difference? It makes a big difference in taste. Fructose is sweeter than both glucose and sucrose, so HFCS is sweeter than sucrose because the exra-sweet fructose is free to tickle your taste buds. (There are a slew of other product quality reasons manufacturers might choose HFCS over sugar for their product. HFCS can extend product shelf life, help keep it moist, give baked goods a nice crumb, etc.)

There is great debate over whether HFCS is actually any worse for you than sugar. Many assert that they are the same in your body – that sucrose breaks down into free fructose and glucose in our stomachs so fast as to render sucrose and HFCS indistinguishable. There are others that are very concerned about the free fructose present in HFCS and the implications of our bodies struggling to break down this sugar. Our bodies aren’t designed to handle large quantities of fructose. Fructose is processed differently than glucose – too much stresses the body and can result a slew of health problems, including high triglycerides, diabetes, and obesity. (Other factors can also contribute to these health problems, of course.)

I’ll be honest – I don’t know where I stand on this issue at the moment. I must admit, I am skeptical of the assertion that sucrose quickly becomes the same as HFCS in our stomachs. I’m skeptical because of my limited knowledge of how hard it is to break down sucrose into its component sugars industrially. Conversion of sucrose to invert sugar (a mixture of fructose and glucose and often residual sucrose) industrial is low – even under harsh conditions of high temperatures (much higher than our body’s temperature) and very acidic conditions. Maybe sucrose is just like HFCS in our bodies, but I’m not convinced. In the end, it really doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned.

Why are we giving it up?

Our journey was spurred by concern of over consuming fructose. Since then, I’ve found that the quality of our diet has improved upon giving up HFCS. Giving up HFCS made us give up a lot of junk and switch to higher quality foods. We think about what we’re consuming more. With two young kids to think of, eating higher quality foods (which usually translates to fresher and less processed) and teaching them to like those foods is really our biggest motivator. As new research has poured in causing people to question whether HFCS is any worse than sugar (see my opinion in the section above), I found that whether it does or doesn’t, I still don’t want my family to consume this stuff.
First, there are the health concerns. I don’t think that we know all there is to know about this ingredient and how our body processes it. Second, I’ve found that HFCS as an ingredient really is a good marker of poor quality food. It’s a cheap ingredient and used because of that. That doesn’t mean that foods without HFCS are automatically good, but seeing HFCS as an ingredient tells me – no matter how fancy the packaging – that the product is using cheap ingredients (and probably has a list of ingredients as long as your arm).
As we’re trying to eat better foods – higher quality foods – I’m happy to just avoid all foods with HFCS. There are other reasons – like not supporting the corn economy or eating fewer processed foods (because an ingredient doesn’t get any more processed than HFCS!) – for giving up HFCS as well.

How has this small change affected our lives?

Giving up HFCS has had kind of a snowball effect on our diet. The simple act of giving up HFCS has forced us to consider the foods that we’re buying more carefully. We’ve since given up trans fat and are eating fewer processed foods. We eat meatless at least one day a week. And amazingly, it’s been a fairly painless transition! I find homemade or at least more acceptable processed foods to replace the HFCS or trans fat laden treats that my son sees his friends eating. Our diet is still evolving, but it’s going in the right direction. My kids are learning to accept healthier food, and hopefully our choices now will stick with them for the rest of their lives.

P.S. In case you are just stopping by, I’m in the process of moving back to the US and am currently on an extended trip in SE Asia. I have weekly guest posts lined up this month and will be stopping by with foodie pictures from our travels as time permits.

Photo courtesy of the guest author.

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  • Cynthia1770 October 21, 2009 at 8:36 am

    My google alert picked up your post. I preach the treachery of HFCS so my mission is clear.
    When comparing HFCS with sucrose, I think one has to consider the specific grade of HFCS. For example, according to the CRA, all national brands of soda are sweetened with HFCS-55. HFCS-55 is 55%fructose:45% glucose. This appears to be only slightly
    different than the 50:50 ratio of
    sucrose, until you do the math.
    55%:45% = 55/45 = 1.22. This means in every Coke there is, compared to glucose, 22% more fructose. In every day terms this means drinking 5 cans of HFCS sweetened Coke is equivalent to drinking
    4 1/4 cans of sugar sweetened Coke + 3/4 can of pure FRUCTOSE sweetened Coke. Knowing that teens
    chug a couple of cans a day, these
    are frightening numbers. I truly believe that this imbalance of
    fructose>glucose has contributed to our present health woes. Since your background is in Chemical engineering, I look forward to your comments.
    To your health.
    comment on

  • Michelle @ Find Your Balance October 21, 2009 at 9:15 am

    HFCS is popular with the junk food industry and that’s all I need to know. It’s a cheap, industrialized sweetener that has zero redeeming qualities. But what does make me angry is stuff now marketed as ‘healthy’ because it has sugar instead of HFCS. I mean, maybe it’s a bit better but it stinks that people are getting a health message. Ugh.

  • Tangled Noodle October 22, 2009 at 6:54 am

    I think the most important take-away from your great post is that avoiding overly processed and packaged food is an excellent step to eating nutritiously. Just by committing to not consuming anything with HFCS helps lead us to making more healthful food choices.

    Thank you for such an informative and balanced post!

  • Anonymous October 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    How does HONEY compare with any kind of processed sugar – be it HFCS, “regular” corn syrup, or table sugar – in terms of %’s of whatever type of sugars it contains and how much more or less healthy it is than other sugar-type sweeteners?

  • sangeeta October 26, 2009 at 8:54 am

    very informative post agin…eye opening for many…it also makes us realize how important it is to read the labels well

  • Lori December 9, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Anon – Sorry it took so long to respond. I was going to email then saw I couldn’t reply to you. Honey is about 38% fructose and 30% glucose. Regardless of the chemical make up, I personally like honey because it is a natural product with antimicrobial, antioxidant and immunity boosting properties. Here are a few resources if you’d like to read more.