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QSR Feature
The Science Behind the Sweetener
High fructose corn syrup

Dr. John White is the founder & president of White Technical Research, a consulting firm serving the food and beverage industry for nearly 15 years. He has worked with high fructose corn syrup for more than 25 years, and his expertise has been quoted by numerous news outlets. Organizations such as the American Council on Science and Health in Washington, D.C., the Institute of Food Technologists in Atlanta, and most recently the Corn Refiners Association have turned to him and his expertise on the sweetener for answers. Now, QSR talks with him to set the record straight about the similarities and differences between sugar and the contested HFCS.

Can you explain how high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was developed? What was on the market before its creation? We’re going back into the 1970s. At that time sucrose was the dominant sweetener. It has a composition that is half fructose and half glucose. Those are two monosaccharides. In sucrose there’s a bond between them. So sucrose is called a disaccharide, but in composition it is half fructose and half glucose.

The other dominant or common caloric sweetener was honey, and it has roughly the same composition but is mostly monosaccharides. So it’s about half fructose and half glucose and its monosaccharous, so there’s no bond between them. So those were the two common caloric sweeteners at the time.

There was a little bit of fruit juice concentrate that also happens to have the same composition, half fructose, half glucose, depending on the fruit that is being concentrated.

So how did HFCS come into the picture? The driving force was twofold for the development of HFCS. One was that it was not always easy to use sucrose in food applications where you had to dissolve the sugar to use it in the formulation. So the obvious application we’re talking about here is beverages where you had to take bags of sugar and dissolve them in a tank. It requires labor to haul those bags around. It required labor to dissolve it and even some energy in terms of stirring and so forth, so this was an inconvenient product to use. There was a desire to have something that was easier to use, so a syrup product where the sugar is already dissolved is a real advantage. And it’s a handling advantage because you can pump it from a rail car or truck into the plant or holding tank and then from the holding tank to wherever you’re using it. There’s no need to dissolve it, only to dilute it.

Comparison of Sweetener Compositions
Comparison of Sweetener Compositions
click to enlarge

What’s the second reason? The other was the instability of sugar in acid solutions or applications. Think of carbonated beverages where the pH is around 3.5 or so, which is a bit acidic. Or think of fruit preserve or fruit preparations. … These are also acidic generally, and sugar is not stable enough under those conditions. The bond between fructose and glucose hydrolyzes, it breaks, under those circumstances. The breaking of this bond is dependent on the pH and dependent on temperature. So in a product that is manufactured then held at room temperature, this hydrolysis starts taking place immediately and can proceed until you have hydrolyzed virtually all of the sucrose into monosaccharide fructose and glucose or partially hydrolyzed it. Where this was a problem was again in the soft drink industry where a product would have a different flavor on day 30 or day 60 than it would have on day one. And depending on where it was shipped, the flavor could be different in different parts of the country.

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