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Corn Syrup: Good Advice, Despite the Source

The Corn Refiners Association wants us to know that, nutritionally speaking, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) isn't the evil villain it's made out to be.

The CRA, which represents the corn-milling industry that produces, among other things, more than 23.5 billion pounds of high fructose corn syrup a year (that figure's from 2005), has mounted a campaign to spread the word that the potent and omnipresent sweetener is no worse for people than sugar or honey.

The CRA's been running ads (this one's actually pretty clever) to drive its point home; it also has ginned up a survey showing that moms sending kids back to school worry about the wrong things in terms of nutrition, fingering things such as HFCS instead of looking at overall calorie consumption.

I hate to admit it -- and don't get me wrong, I don't think corn syrup is health food or that the CRA's necessarily got anything but its own best interests in mind -- but I think the group's right on this one. The American Medical Association in June issued a report saying that there's not enough good evidence that HFCS contributes to overweight, obesity, or diabetes any more than other caloric sweeteners do to warrant its being blacklisted. (The report does note that more research is needed.) And the Center for Science in the Public Interest lists HFCS as a sweetener to be cut back on -- just like regular sugar. (There may be environmental or political reasons for disdaining HFCS, though, as this article points out.)

So it seems to me that cutting back on high-calorie sweet stuff no matter what makes it sweet is a good idea. (Evidence is also mounting that cutting back on low-calorie artificial sweeteners may be in order, too, but that's a blog for another day.)

Of course, that's easier said than done: corn syrup's everywhere. My family no longer consumes much candy or packaged sweet baked goods, and we've never been a soda-drinking bunch. But a quick pantry check showed we're still getting our share of HFCS -- and the less-processed, less-sweet regular corn syrup from which HFCS is made -- in what I thought was a fairly healthful diet. My Total Raisin Bran lists corn syrup as its fifth ingredient; our 25-percent-less-sugar Quaker Granola Bars list it as the second ingredient (I think; this product's ingredient list is a maddening mix of brackets and parentheses that's very hard to sort out!); Welch's Concord Grape Jelly (which I now serve on sandwiches with NATURAL peanut butter, thanks to readers' comments on my blog about Nutella a few weeks back) lists corn syrup second (after Concord grapes) and HFCS third. Even my dog's Snausages (which, for the record, we're using as part of her obedience training and not as a regular menu item) feature corn syrup as a fourth ingredient.

So, for us, reducing consumption of HFCS may mean cutting back on portion sizes rather than eliminating whole food items altogether.

How about you? How concerned are you about HFCS? Have you tried cutting it out of your diet? What's that been like?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 9, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
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A few years ago, the Washington Post ran a remarkable article about HFCS and how it interacts with our body. I hope this WP Check-Up writer has read that article written by her colleague. It does not appear that she has.

Posted by: Huh | September 9, 2008 8:28 AM | Report abuse

So, for us, reducing consumption of HFCS may mean cutting back on portion sizes rather than eliminating whole food items altogether.


Or you could just switch to products that don't have the HFCS. Naturally sweetened jelly and juice is easy to find if you check the label before you buy it. I don't eat cereal, but I feel sure that a little investigation in the cereal aisle will net you a HFCS free cereal. Same for snack foods like granola bars.
There are also dog treats that are natural - they even have dog treats that are wheat, gluten and soy-free - you just have to look for them.

Posted by: alternatively | September 9, 2008 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Anyone who has made the choice of cutting back their HFCS intake has likely found that it is very hard to do so. I am trying to cut back my family's intake of HFCS, but this stuff is apparently such a cheap replacement for regular sugar that it has creeped into a vast number of items that we eat regularly. My biggest peeve currently is the lack of wheat bread product that steers clear of HFCS. My choices are greatly limited in the bread aisle. If there is an easy way to limit HFCS intake, it is by using fresh food products to do most of your own cooking. While definitely hard to do all the time, I think the more unrefined products we consume the better we will be in the long run.

Posted by: Jason | September 9, 2008 8:45 AM | Report abuse

We have tried to cut back, and fairly successfully. One of the hardest things was bread products. You have to hunt at the grocery store to find wheat bread, wheat burger buns, etc., that don't have HFCS, so we bought a bread machine and make our own bread now. The main solution for us has been to make more of our food from more raw ingredients, and look at labels. There are often good alternatives to the products that have HFCS.

Also, a friend of mine a couple years back discovered he's allergic to HFCS, and had to cut it out completely. He lost 15-20 pounds without changing anything else in his diet (still ate snack foods and ice cream, just not the ones with HFCS). He said Trader Joe's was a great place to find HFCS-free products.

Posted by: E | September 9, 2008 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I don't buy any products with HFCS. Period. It is not that difficult. Organic ketchup is made with cane sugar, for instance. Whole Foods breads don't have HFCS. And their sodas are made with sugar,not HFCS. Don't forget, many times the HFCS comes from genetically-modified corn.

Posted by: Bev | September 9, 2008 8:54 AM | Report abuse

The proliferation of HFCS is the natural result of rediculous cane sugar tarrifs by the U.S. and other countries and agricultural policies that encourage corn production in the U.S.

If the U.S. would stop uneconomic import tarrifs on imported sugar, cane sugar prices would go down. If the U.S. would ditch agricultural support for corn, HFCS prices would go up. Unfortunately, there are almost no politicians and no one at the Department of Agriculture that want this to happen.

Posted by: Josey23 | September 9, 2008 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I use honey instead of sugar and corn squeezins.

Posted by: Bartolo | September 9, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I would agree with Jason and E, both on the difficulties, and that it is possible. I am intolerant of fructose in general, and since I'm not prepared to eliminate fruit and the sweeter vegetables from my diet, I have banned HFCS and (as much as possible) corn syrup from my house. The general rule of thumb is "if it can be efficiently sweetened with a liquid, assume it is sweetened with HFCS". This means that soups, sauces, condiments, and any 'wet' mixture (baked beans, canned fruit) are just as likely as soda and bread to contain the product.

It helps a lot that I am an experienced scratch cook, both to know where to expect such a sweetener, and to make my own replacements. I make all our jams and jellies, and most of our pickles and relishes, much of my bread, and buy the rest of the bread at Great Harvest and in-store bakeries. FWIW, French, Italian, and sourdough breads rarely have significant sweeteners.

As far as cereal is concerned, (plain large) Shredded Wheat and all the plain cooked cereals are unsweetened (rolled oats, Cream of Wheat, Wheatena, grits).

Posted by: RobinD | September 9, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I choose not to consume HFCS because of concerns with the way it's natural ingredients are manipulated during production. I don't think the body processes it the same way (and that goes for "enriched" flour as well).

Avoiding HFCS can be difficult in the states, but it's not impossible. For wheat bread, I can vouch for Roman Meal (at least the double fiber line), Martin's Wheat Bread and as mentioned before, Trader Joe's. For cereals, I stick with Kashi products or Nature's Path. It's pretty tough to find grape jelly that's free of HFCS, but Cascadian Farms makes a good jelly, as does Nature's Promise (Giant label). I have also found that many international products (i.e. indian and thai) use sugar as well.

It is unfortunate that it is so expensive, but we only get one body and we have to treat it well.

Posted by: stephen | September 9, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Why? A chemical analysis of HFCS shows it to be "virtually identical" to sugar. I knew that before the SweetSuprise ad campaign. I agree that cutting calories IS a big deal, but HFCS? Not even an afterthought in my mind.

If you want to spend the extra money for "all natural" (it isn't) stuff, more power to you.

Posted by: byte1 | September 9, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I'm trying to cut back on HFCS not because it's any worse for you than sugar, but because everything it's in is processed. You take out HFCS, what you're eating is closer to the ground. You end up cooking more and eating better in general.

Posted by: L | September 9, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I've tried to cut back, primarily by reading labels at the grocery store. What surprised me is that one brand of a cereal may have it, but another brand of the exact same type of cereal may not. Also, shopping at places like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, while expensive, helps.

Posted by: ebart | September 9, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

As someone who is allergic to corn, I can tell you that the use of HFCS, corn syrup and related ingredients has been on the rise in recent years. With Archer Daniels Midland contributing so much money to politicians in Washington, why is it so surprising that every other product on the shelf in a grocery store is full of HFCS, corn syrup, corn starch, sortibal and so many other ingredients derived from corn?

Posted by: Allergic to Corn | September 9, 2008 10:41 PM | Report abuse

So, because this is all very confusing to me, let me summarize all this crazy, breaking news, so as to process it.

Corn refiners run an ad campaign (which also appears in the pages of the WP) saying HFCS is not bad.

The WP blogger publicizes the campaign, saying HFCS is not bad. But - never heard this before - you should eat it in moderation. And also, more research needs to be done.

Well, thank you for delivering this news.

Posted by: No Way... | September 9, 2008 10:44 PM | Report abuse

I was very pleased to see this summary by the Check Up. It clearly states the facts that no study (and there have been lots - this is obviously a hot area of research) has yet to prove that HFCS makes you any fatter than regular sweeteners. I was skeptical too when I saw the source, but I also attend scientific meetings where the negative results (meaning finding no association) of a lot of this research are presented, often times by researchers who are really hoping to find a link there. Does that mean we should be eating it? Maybe not, but cutting back on all refined sweeteners is probably a wise move we could make.

The case of HFCS is a clear case of a health issue that many people jump on the bandwagon against simply because it seems to make sense to them. I would love nothing more than for someone to find that link, but people who are really good at doing this research have not been able to show that HFCS is the enemy. Anyone can search PubMed on this topic (just search "Pubmed" on a search engine), which is a database sponsored by NIH that contains all of the biomedical papers and research that are published in peer-reviewed journals. You may not be able to access the full article because some journals require a subscription, but all of the summaries are free, and many of the journals provide free access. I would encourage people to do this for any health issue they are concerned about.

Posted by: A nutritionist | September 11, 2008 6:04 PM | Report abuse

If HFCS is worse for the environment, it is then probably also worse for our long-term health.

Posted by: fanxudong | September 12, 2008 8:11 AM | Report abuse

I read a couple years ago that because of the way amino acids are linked in HFCS that losing weight is much harder than ingesting products with regular sugar.
There is no way, you can convince that there is any good purpose for using HFCS in products, other than profits and fillers.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 12, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse

We started trying to eliminate HFCS from our grocery bag years before it was fashionable. Since we do most of our cooking from scratch, it's been relatively easy. Some things, like storebought bread, is nearly impossible. My hope is that corn-based plastics and bio fuels will drive up the price of HFCS so much that food manufacturers will go back to real sugar.

Posted by: Crabcakegirl | September 12, 2008 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Having recently moved back to the US from Australia, I can vouch that the phenomena of HFCS is mainly here in the US. In Australia, many of the food products are made with Cane Sugar. These are the "normal" products not the "organic" ones (in Australia, an "organic" label may mean something different than in the US - I'm not sure).

Anyway, credit the powerful Corn lobby here in the US for the increasing use of HFCS. The food does taste better in Australia than here in the US. Don't know if this is because they use cane sugar vs. HFCS, but it could be associated.

Posted by: Misplaced Aussie | September 12, 2008 3:41 PM | Report abuse

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