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Alternatives to Ears
Find ways around high-fructose corn syrup and fatty burgers.

How Sweet It Is: The Rise of High-Fructose Corn Syrup

On bottles of ketchup or jars of tomato sauce, on boxes of cereal or cans of fruit juice, high-fructose corn syrup—or HFCS—makes a regular appearance in the modern American diet. But while HFCS has become a staple ingredient of packaged and processed foods, this wasn’t always the case. Before the late 1960s, the enzyme that makes HFCS production possible hadn’t even been discovered yet, and before 1970, Americans had never tasted the sweet stuff.

A metal pot on a stove containing a thermometer and a yellow-white paste

Since then, high-fructose corn syrup has become the most valuable food product—among a vast array of oils, starches, glutens, proteins and other sweeteners made from corn. Processed in a plant called a wet mill, HFCS is made from another common corn derivative: corn starch. Through a series of enzymatic transformations that break down the starch into sugars, HFCS production ultimately results in a sweetener that tastes just like table sugar. Part glucose and part fructose, it has the exact number of calories, per gram, as the sugar derived from cane or beets. And like the granulated sugar Americans stir into their coffee or sprinkle on their grapefruit, HFCS provides those calories without offering much in the way of nutrition: no minerals, no vitamins, no fats or proteins and no fiber.

While Americans have been eating sugar in one form or another for centuries, the influx of high-fructose corn syrup into everyday foods—even those not normally associated with sweetness—has helped boost overall sweetener intake by 19 percent since 1970. As a result, Americans now eat about 523 more calories each day. And about 76 of those extra daily calories come from sugars and sweeteners like HFCS. At last count in 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that Americans eat 79 pounds of corn sweetener per year—a four-fold increase from 1970.

A supermarket aisle stocked with boxes of Coca-Cola and other beverages

The problem? With more sweeteners available in the food system, and with more high-calorie, sweetened convenience foods than ever before, Americans are becoming overweight. The largest nation of sweetener consumers on the planet, the U.S. faces what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “a growing obesity epidemic.”

A trash heap of half-eaten hamburgers, popcorn kernels, sandwiches, plastic soda bottles and paper cups

What’s more, nutritional studies performed at the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association conclude that individuals who drink more than one sugar- or corn-sweetened beverage per day substantially increase their risk of gaining weight and developing diabetes. While it’s certainly not the only factor, the abundance, convenience, affordability and omnipresence of HFCS in the American diet contributes mightily to increased calorie consumption. By extension, it ratchets up the risk of the diet-related illnesses associated with weight gain. High-fructose corn syrup may be as sweet as sugar, but like sugar, its taste comes at a price.

Updated 4/14/08

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