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QSR Feature
The Science Behind the Sweetener
HFCS gained very little attention from the medical community because of the recognition that in terms of composition it was very similar to sugar.”

How is HFCS made? The way it is done is to start with cornstarch through the use of acid and enzymes to hydrolyze the glucose molecules. This glucose is the same glucose you find in sugar and in honey and in fruits. Then [you] use an enzyme that could change the form of that into fructose. And you change about half of it, and you do some blending and you end up with a product that is half fructose and half glucose. Well that’s the same as honey; that’s the same as many fruits.

Does the human body metabolize HFCS differently than sucrose? Initially HFCS gained very little attention from the medical community because of the recognition that in terms of composition it was very similar to sugar. And if sugar hasn’t been causing problems, why should HFCS? Now, it’s been known since it was developed that it is a caloric ingredient and so to the extent that you over consume a caloric ingredient, you’re going to gain weight. So that was the only concern for it and that was the same concern for sugar. … It wasn’t until probably early 2003 or 2004 that the hypothesis was put forward that HFCS is uniquely responsible for obesity.

Is that how it became the scapegoat for the obesity epidemic? It was because of a paper put out by George Bray and Barry Popkin in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. What they did was graph the increased use of HFCS since the 1970s and superimposed on top of that the increase in obesity rates. And they found that there was a correlation.

Does that correlation between the two mean it caused the obesity trend? No. It does not mean cause. All it means is this is an interesting hypothesis that needs to be further tested. It was interpreted as cause and effect. That interpretation spread like a weed in the nutrition community.

Why did it catch on so fast? Because George Bray is an extremely influential nutritionist, very well known, very widely respected, and The American Journal of Nutrition is The Bible to many nutritionists and physicians. If it’s published there, it’s got to be true. Again, this was a hypothesis with absolutely no proof that this was so.

Chart showing relative use of refined sugar and HFCS as sweeteners.

… What is another factor in this? It’s ignorance of the sweeteners. And it has been appalling to me and lots of other people about how ignorant many scientists are about the composition of the products.

What about the claim that HFCS is in products that sugar usually isn’t, causing people to consume hidden calories? The products that HFCS went into were not largely newly created products but were products that had largely been sweetened with sugar before. It was a replacement for sugar because it was more convenient than sugar, because it was maybe a bit cheaper than sugar; it was because it was more stable than sugar. It was a replacement for most of the applications. Today, in the U.S., we sweeten equally with sugar and HFCS. Again there’s this perception that HFCS has taken over the U.S. sweetener market, and that’s simply not true.

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