High Fructose Corn Syrup

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Podcast Transcript

In 1957, two chemists at the Clinton Corn Processing Company of Clinton, Iowa, developed a system for converting the glucose found in corn starch into fructose. 

Over 60 years later, the product they created can be found in a dizzying array of food products worldwide.

Learn more about High Fructose Corn Syrup, how it is made, how it is used, and the controversy surrounding it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Early humans ate very little sugar. 

No matter where you lived, your diet consisted of some combination of meat, grain, vegetables, dairy, and nuts. Even fruit, which does have sugar, was only available in season, and even then, they weren’t eating the same fruits we were eating today. 

Modern fruits were crossbred over centuries to be higher in sugar content than they would be in nature.

Despite not consuming very much sugar, humans really like sugar. It was much of the reason for the European expansion into the Western Hemisphere.

The problem with sugar is that it is very picky about where it can be grown. It needs a tropical climate, which naturally limits how much of it can be grown. 

This limited sugar to being a luxury product until the 19th century. The thing which increased sugar consumption was the development of beet sugar. This allowed sugar to be produced in non-tropical areas. 

As successful as beet sugar was, there were some who thought that maybe there was an even better way to produce a sweetener. 

That led two chemists, Richard Marshall and Earl Kooi, of the Clinton Corn Processing Company of Clinton, Iowa, to develop a process that could turn the glucose found in corn starch into fructose.

The process they developed wasn’t something that could easily scale up to mass production, but it showed enormous potential.  The potential was in the vast size of the corn crop.

Corn, also known as maize, is one of the world’s largest crops. It is the world’s second-largest crop in terms of acreage and the largest in the United States.

Here I should explain what fructose is. 

Fructose is a type of sugar known as a monosaccharide. A monosaccharide is a simple form of sugar and are the building blocks of all carbohydrates. There are three monosaccharides: glucose, fructose, and galactose.

The stuff we call table sugar is sucrose, which is a disaccharide made of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. 

These building blocks can be made into more complicated molecules called polysaccharides, including things like starch and cellulose.

More on chemistry in a bit.

Yoshiyuki Takasaki from the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology improved the process for converting corn starch into fructose. This allowed for the mass production of fructose at scale.

This led to the creation of high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS in 1967. 

High fructose corn syrup is not the same thing as corn syrup. Corn syrup you buy in a store is thicker and a mixture of many different types of sugars. 

High fructose corn syrup is made from corn syrup which is made from corn starch. It is created from enzymes that break down the corn syrup into pure fructose.

The Clinton Corn Processing Company began to market high fructose corn syrup in the early 1970s.

From a business standpoint, high fructose corn syrup has several major advantages over sugar. 

First, it is cheaper. Significantly cheaper. This is especially true in the United States, which you will see in a bit.

Second, it is much easier to handle. It is a liquid instead of a solid, which can be transported in tanker cars, pumped, piped, and added to mixtures for easier processing.

Finally, it is sweeter. Because it is sweeter, you don’t need as much of it to get the same level of sweetness in a product, or conversely, you can make something sweeter with the same amount.

The introduction of high fructose corn syrup wasn’t an immediate hit. What helped it along were several events that were seemingly unrelated. 

The first was the sale of corn in 1971 by the United States to the Soviet Union. This was a massive amount of corn which caused the price to spike. Farmers began planting as much corn as possible to meet the new demand. 

A few years later, corn subsidies were increased, encouraging farmers to continue planting corn “fencerow to fencerow” because they had  guaranteed money.

With all that corn being produced, there was a need to find more markets. Large agribusiness companies like Archer Daniel Midland pursued two major markets: ethanol and high fructose corn syrup. 

The production of ethanol and high fructose corn syrup actually isn’t radically different. In the case of ethanol, the wet mass of corn starch is allowed to ferment into alcohol, and an enzyme is added with high fructose corn syrup.

Ethanol didn’t take off immediately because gas prices fell after the 1970s. 

High fructose corn syrup didn’t take off either because world sugar prices plummeted. After a peak in 1974 of about 65 cents a pound, it dropped to 9 cents a pound. 

However, in 1981, quotas were placed on sugar imports into the United States; overnight, sugar became more expensive than high fructose corn syrup in American markets.

By 1984, both Coke and Pepsi had switched from sugar to high fructose corn syrup as the sweetener for their soft drinks. 

While they didn’t run advertisements announcing the switch, they also weren’t really hiding the fact. There were writeups in publications like the Wall Street Journal, and, to be completely honest, most people had no idea that the sweetener had changed. 

The 80s were the decade the high fructose corn syrup really took off.  In 1977, the average American consumed 9.6 pounds of high fructose corn syrup per year. By 1990 they were consuming almost 50 pounds per year. 

The consumption and use of high fructose corn syrup continued with more and more food products. 

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that high fructose corn syrup is in everything. 

If there is anything that is remotely sweet and any sort of processed food, it is likely that it is made out of high fructose corn syrup.

That maple syrup you enjoy on pancakes and waffles? If you look closely, it probably says “maple flavored,” and the number one or two ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. 

Condiments such as ketchup and barbecue sauce have it. Jams and jellies have it. Breakfast cereals, fruit juices, applesauce, and ice cream all use high fructose corn syrup.

However, it isn’t just in sweet products. It is in a host of products that you probably would not expect.

Chicken nuggets and other prepackaged meat products, such as deli meats, have high fructose corn syrup. 

Bread, crackers, and other baked goods all have high fructose corn syrup added. 

Salad dressing, soup, yogurt, canned vegetables, canned fruit, cottage cheese, peanut butter, pickles, and many many other products have high fructose corn syrup.

In fact, I encourage you, the next time you eat anything which come packaged or premade, to look at the ingredients. Odds are you will find high fructose corn syrup, or if not, soybean oil, which is another episode.

While the high fructose corn syrup revolution started in the United States, it has spread worldwide. The United States exports the majority of the high fructose corn syrup at 71% of the global market share, but other world leaders include Canada, Mexico, Japan, and South Korea.

So, there is a lot of high fructose corn syrup in food products?

So, what is the big deal? 

Before I get into that, let me go back to a bit of chemistry. 

The way our bodies metabolize any carbohydrate, including fructose, is that it has to convert everything into glucose. This is done in our livers. 

However, we can only keep so much glucose in our bodies. On average, there is only about one teaspoon of glucose in our bloodstream at any given time.  A bit is stored in our muscles and liver, and the rest is converted into fat by the hormone insulin. 

For this reason, many people blame the global rise in obesity rates on high fructose corn syrup consumption, or at least consider it to be a significant contributing factor. 

There certainly is a strong correlation between high fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity rates. 

If you remember back to my episode on correlation not necessarily implying causation, just because two factors increase together, it does not mean that one thing caused the other.

What could be the causal reason why high fructose corn syrup causes obesity?

There are two reasons usually given, both of which could be true.

The first is that there is something unique about fructose that is different from sucrose. There might be something in the process of metabolizing fructose that is worse than just consuming regular sugar. 

There have been many studies linking high fructose corn syrup to cancer, heart disease, and a host of other health problems, but they also only show correlation, not causation.

The second, and probably a large contributing factor, is that we consume so much high fructose corn syrup. 

The average American consumes 40 pounds or 18 kilograms per year. Some countries are higher. 

Before the creation of industrial-produced sweeteners, it would have been almost impossible for someone to consume that much fructose. 

The cheap cost of high fructose corn syrup has made it ubiquitous and allowed for such abnormally high consumption. It might simply be a matter of eating too much because it has been put into everything.

Placing high fructose corn syrup into so many different food products isn’t a conspiracy; it’s business.  

Due to sugar tariffs and corn subsidies, high fructose corn syrup became the cheapest option as a sweetener.  The reason it is in so many products? It is because people like it. People like sweet foods.

High fructose corn syrup consumption has decreased over the last 20 years, but it is still extremely high. Far higher than it was 50 years ago. 

Absent changes in corn subsidies or sugar tariffs, economics will dictate that high fructose corn syrup will remain the preferred sweetener in most of the world for the foreseeable future.