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Work On It Wednesday - HFCS

Last week, we talked about cutting out artificial sweeteners from our lives in the Work On It Wednesday segment. This week, we're going to take it a bit farther (uh oh!) and tackle High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

You've probably heard about HFCS in the news lately - it is literally all over the place. From Facebook groups calling for it's complete ban to commercials on TV that defend HFCS as fine in moderation, HFCS seems to be the demonized element of the moment. I'm not going to join in on the hoopla of everything that people have to say about it, but suffice to say that HFCS is not included in certified organic products, which says to me that it is a less than natural ingredient. In my quest for increasing the "whole foods" in my pantry, HFCS doesn't really have a place.

A little background information: HFCS is made by changing the sugar (glucose) in cornstarch into fructose - which is another form of sugar- and then adding that product to more glucose. The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose and is a cheaper sweetener (due in part to the government subsidies on corn), which makes it very desirable for food manufacturers who are looking to increase their profit margin.

People on either side of the HFCS debate have vastly different opinions about how it interacts with your body chemistry. Proponents of HFCS (mostly the Corn Refiners Association) claim that HFCS is nutritionally the same as sugar, and contains the same amount of calories as both sugar and honey. In addition, they claim that HFCS is made from corn, which makes it "natural" (see more about that ambiguous term here).

Those claims may be legally true (ie. it does contain the same amount of calories, and "natural" isn't really legally defined) but there have been ample studies that imply that HFCS may interact with our bodies in ways that are not beneficial, and contribute to some of the problems that we experience.  One of the most prevalent claims is that HFCS contributes to the obesity epidemic that the US is currently facing. Over the last 40 years or so, the US has increased it production of HFCS from 3,000 tons to 9, 227,000 tons. Since 1980 it has increased 350% (figures are from Master Your Metabolism). During this same period of time, obesity rates in the US have shot up to the current level of 64% of adults being either overweight or obese. However, just because these two happened simultaneously does not imply that somehow HFCS made everyone overweight, or that there is something inherently wrong with HFCS in small doses (although clearly that is a term that we in the US have trouble wrapping our heads around).

The thing that gets to me about HFCS is not the correlation between its production and obesity rates. There are lots of things that happened during the same period of time that could have also contributed to the rise in obesity rates (women working outside the home more, increase in work hours for people, low fat diet trends, etc). The thing that gets to me about HFCS is the studies that show that it does actually interact in your body in ways that are different from table sugar, which already isn't great for you. According to a recent study from Princeton University, rats that were given HFCS gained significantly more weight than rats that were given normal sugar, even when their overall calorie consumption was the same. They also did a second study on HFCS which monitored weight gain, body fat, and triglyceride levels in rats that had daily access to HFCS. Over the course of the six month study, these rats showed what we call in humans "metabolic syndrome" characterized by abnormal weight gain, an increase in circulating triglycerides, and an increase in visceral fat around the abdomen. Additionally, a study at the University of Pennsylvania found that fructose does not suppress the hormone ghrelin in the same was that glucose does. Ghrelin is responsible for increasing your appetite, so ideally when you eat something, ghrelin levels should decrease, allowing you to feel satiated. By eating things with HFCS in them and not have lowered ghrelin levels, we set ourselves up for constant hunger and insatiable cravings.

Whew! That was a lot of information. All that to say though, that I'm Working On cutting HFCS out of my life. Although the Corn Refiners Association may tell me that it is all natural, I'm not buyin' it! Wikihow has a pretty thorough article about reducing your HFCS intake, but here are a few foods to watch out for in order to reduce your HFCS:

  • Breakfast Cereals
  • Juice, Soda, Tea
  • Bread
  • Cookies, Cakes, Crackers (even Wheat Thins!)
  • Cottage cheese, yogurt, and sweetened dairy products
  • Ice Cream
  • Baked Beans
  • Jams, Jellies
  • Salad Dressing
  • Pickles
  • Sauces like spaghetti sauce and BBQ sauce
A great rule of thumb with HFCS is that it is usually present in packaged and processed foods - reduced your consumption of processed foods and you virtually guarantee that you are also reducing your consumption of HFCS.  Become an avid label reader - one of the good things about trying to reduce HFCS is that it is pretty obvious in the nutritional label of packages. It usually just says "high fructose corn syrup." By reading your food labels religiously, you are not only going to find surprising foods with HFCS in them, and thus be able to eliminate them, but you'll also become more aware in general of the additives and extras in your food.

How are you planning on reducing your HFCS consumption? What was the most surprising food for you to find HFCS in? Do you feel that this is something that should be eliminated from your diet? I would love to hear your thoughts!


  1. To your main concern—that high fructose corn syrup is processed by the body different than refined sugar—I offer this: Just about every nutritionist and health professionals, including the American Medical Association, agree that there is no difference in how the body metabolizes them. And as for the Princeton study, even noted nutritionist Marion Nestle wrote: “I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats. I’m afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one. So does HFCS make rats fat? Sure if you feed them too many calories altogether. Sucrose will do that too.”

  2. I totally agree that anything that you indulge in too much will make you fat eventually. In theory, it would even be possible to get fat off fruits and vegetables, although much harder. The difference between getting fat off something like fruit and veggies is that your body has feedback mechanism thats tell you that you are full, and hormones that are released that tell you to stop eating before you become OVERLY full. With the franko foods that we've created in a laboratory (like HFCS, among other things) they do not allow your body to regulate those feedback mechanisms in the same way, thus you do not feel satisfied until you've eaten way more than you really need to. I prefer to stick with items that have withstood the test of time, and HFCS isn't one of them. There is still so much research going on about it, and so many differing opinions from all spheres of scientists and doctors alike, that I am going to make my choice to cut it out of my diet. If it turns out HFCS is completely harmless, I certainly don't think I will have been missing out on anything by not ingesting it. Thank you for your feedback!

  3. I'm trying to reduce, then eliminate HFCS this year, too. It's not just that it's not natural, it's also made from GMO corn and I'm trying to eliminate GMOs from our diet (as much as possible).