IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

High-fructose corn syrup: sugar on crack?

Florida legislators want to ban the sweetener in schools. “Today” food editor Phil Lempert examines whether the sugary substance is unhealthy.

Calling high-fructose corn syrup the “crack of sweeteners,” Florida state Rep. Juan Zapata wants to ban the state’s school districts from selling or using products containing the sweetener. Zapata, a Republican, is joined in this effort by state Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Democrat. Both maintain that students who consume foods and drinks made with high-fructose corn syrup are more likely to become obese and develop Type-2 diabetes.

The proposed legislation is generating considerable debate in the food industry. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, an industry trade group, said: “Passing this legislation would create a significant hardship for no health gain. There is no scientific evidence that supports the statement that high-fructose corn syrup is a contributor to diabetes or obesity.”

Erickson isn't alone. In fact, she gets support from an unexpected quarter. Tuesdi Fenter, a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association, told the Miami Herald, “We don't think that high-fructose corn syrup is the enemy. People can have anything they want as long as it's in moderation.”

So what is this controversial sweetener? Like ordinary corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup is made from corn starch. But through additional processing, it contains a high level of fructose (found in fruits and honey) and glucose, a simple sugar carbohydrate. High-fructose corn syrup is made up of about 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, which the Corn Refiners Association says is about the same composition of table sugar or sucrose.

However, high-fructose corn syrup is about 75 percent sweeter than sugar, is less expensive than sugar, and mixes better in many foods than sugar. When it was created in the '70s, the sweetener was thought to be a revolutionary advance in food science because of its stability and usefulness in a variety of foods. Food manufacturers (especially soda manufacturers) began using high-fructose corn syrup to save money. Part of the reason corn syrup is less expensive than sugar is because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm bill subsidizes corn growers to grow more corn than we need!

Our bodies burn glucose as a source of immediate energy, and store it in our muscles and our livers for later use. Glucose also causes the body to release insulin. Insulin, a naturally occurring hormone, helps with metabolism. Fructose, on the other hand, does not cause the release of insulin, but another hormone, leptin. This hormone also helps regulate our storage of fat and increases our metabolism when needed. Some studies show that obese people build up resistance to leptin. This is similar to diabetics becoming resistant to the effects of insulin.

Reports show that Americans’ white refined sugar consumption has dropped over the past 20 years. However, according to USDA figures, our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has increased 250 percent over the past 15 years. Estimates indicate that we consume about 9 percent of our daily calories in the form of fructose.

The controversy surrounding high-fructose corn syrup centers on whether it is linked to America's growing obesity problem. Some contend that it is no more harmful than sugar; others note that it is hardly a coincidence that waistlines in the U.S. have been expanding since it was introduced in the market 30 years ago. But that sidesteps the fact that too many products on the market use high-fructose corn syrup as an ingredient to mask or enhance flavors. Do we really need any kind of added sugar in pasta sauce, ketchup, BBQ sauce, bread, cookies, or even frozen entrées? Will Florida ban products containing high-fructose corn syrup? Not a chance. But this should raise the alarm for food companies that it’s about time to remove all extra sugars.  

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .