Megan is a writer and mom of two. She enjoys cooking, running, and gardening.
Junk Food's Common Ingredient
I try to eat healthily, but every once in a while life gets in the way and I find myself relying on fast foods and processed foods in lieu of home-cooked meals that focus on whole foods. Every time I fall into that routine, I quickly notice that I don't feel quite right. I am more tired than I think I should be, and I start to crave coffee and sweets instead of real food. I get bloated, get sick more easily, and just don't feel healthy. After this cycle, I always make a resolution to get back on track. When that happens, I feel better for a few days after eating healthy, but then go back to feeling crummy. If I stick with eating healthy, and make it through the initial withdrawal period from the junk food, then I feel good again.
This got me wondering, why is it so hard to cut junk food once you start? Why do we opt for it in the first place? This led me to one ingredient that seems to be a big culprit in making junk food so addicting: high fructose corn syrup. The following information helped me to make more informed decisions about what foods I am buying, and I hope it can help other readers, too.
What is High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)?
High Fructose Corn Syrup is an artificial sweetener derived from corn syrup that is broken down by the enzyme glucose isomerase to convert some of the glucose into fructose. When originally broken down, corn syrup is pure glucose. HFCS, once that enzyme is added, consists of part fructose (the same sugar found in fruits), and part glucose. There are two main “versions” of HFCS—one with 42% fructose, and one with 55% percent fructose. 55% high fructose corn syrup is what is used to sweeten the majority of sodas in the United States. The product with 42% concentration is used in many processed snacks, sweetened yogurts, cereals, and other foods.
High fructose corn syrup is different from common table sugar (sucrose) because fructose and glucose are not chemically bound together. In sucrose, fructose and glucose are bound together. Both are sweet, but many can taste the difference between the two and agree that regular sugar tastes better. HFCS has been used since its discovery in the 1970s mostly because it is cheaper. It is derived from corn, which is an inexpensive crop often subsidized by the government. Sugar cane and sugar beets, on the other hand, are higher quality but more expensive to use to produce sweeteners.
Is High Fructose Corn Syrup Worse Than Other Sweeteners?
There are arguments both ways—some claim that HFCS is no worse than sucrose or honey, while others claim it is solely responsible for America’s obesity problem. Below are the premises of both arguments:
Claim: High Fructose Corn Syrup is No Worse Than Other Sweeteners
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “not aware of any evidence…that there is a difference in safety between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners.” They support the view that everyone should indeed limit overall sugar consumption, but that whether or not that sugar comes from sucrose, honey, HFCS, or other sweeteners makes no difference.
Claim: High Fructose Corn Syrup is Dangerous
Those who claim that HFCS is particularly bad for you to cite possible differences in how we metabolize fructose and glucose. In sucrose, those two molecules are chemically bound. In HFCS, they are already separated. Sugar in the form of glucose that we get from high starch foods is used to provide fast fuel to our bodies. Fructose, which HFCS contains a lot of, must first be converted into fat before our bodies use it for energy. Our bodies process fructose from fruit the same way, but there is a lot less fructose in fruit than in foods containing HFCS. HFCS adds fructose to our diets in excess, and we are not equipped biologically to process it all into fuel. It, therefore, turns into fat and alters our blood sugar.
Any sugar can become a toxin in high enough doses. Because HFCS is hidden in many processed foods which are so widely consumed in the U.S., it is very easy to consume too much sugar without realizing it. Therefore, limiting or avoiding HFCS altogether can only be beneficial to one’s overall health. If the claims about its effects on our health are true, cutting it out can help you overcome or prevent certain illnesses. Even if it turns out that HFCS is no worse than sugar or honey, limiting it can still help you cut down on sugar intake.
HFCS Regulations Abroad
A lot of health food fanatics will quickly point out that high fructose corn syrup is banned in Europe and in other countries. It is not, in fact, banned in Europe. It is, however, regulated and its production is limited. This is not due to its potential health risks, but rather because of a quota set by the government. The European Union has recently increased the quota and allowed more HFCS to be used in Europe because of increasing demand for products that contain it.
In countries like Mexico, the use of high fructose corn syrup has also been discouraged not for health reason, but again for economic ones. In the early 2000s, a tax was imposed on imported corn syrup (which HFCS is made from) in order to support the Mexican sugar industry. Many people say that Coca-Cola tastes better in Mexico—this may be because it is made with real sugar there, instead of HFCS!
Potential Health Problems Linked with HFCS
Many health problems have been linked to high consumption of this sweetener. Here are three of the main health risks associated with it:
Fructose from HFCS is converted to fat before it can be used. Since HFCS is used in such high quantities and in many foods, our bodies have trouble processing it correctly and it ends up as extra fat. Obesity is known to put people at risk for a whole host of health problems, including but not limited to diabetes and heart problems.
Studies have shown that the rate of diabetes is higher in countries that use high fructose corn syrup compared to those that don’t. Diabetes is prevalent in the U.S. where the average American consumes about 55 pounds of HCFS per year!
Some studies show that sugar, and HFCS in particular, exacerbate joint pain and other internal inflammation. Inflammation can also manifest itself as headaches, fever, and other cold symptoms.
Common Foods and Beverages Containing High Fructose Corn Syrup
Check the label! The following foods commonly (but not always) contain HFCS. It will be listed in the ingredients.
- Breakfast cereal
- Low-fat or Non-fat Yogurt
- Salad Dressings
- Frozen Dinners
- Canned or Preserved Fruit
- Meal Replacement Bars
- Ice cream
High fructose corn syrup can even be found in medicine! While looking at the ingredients on children's Tylenol I was disturbed to discover it was one of the main ingredients.
Cutting Out HFCS
To cut back on your high fructose corn syrup consumption, you have a few options. You can either cut out the types of foods that normally contain it (i.e., junk food), or you can pay closer attention to the ingredients list of the foods you do buy. While choosing processed foods without HFCS is better than going for those that do contain it, it is probably better to avoid those foods either way and instead opt for a diet as high in whole foods as possible.
The first change you can make while trying to cut back is to check nutrition labels while shopping. If you are buying granola bars or cereal and notice that your normal choice contains HFCS, there may be a similar option without that ingredient right next to it on the shelf. Start by at least choosing the option without this harmful sweetener.
Try to cook at home when possible—fast foods, in particular, tend to use a lot of high fructose corn syrup, mainly because it is the most cost-effective sweetener.
When you are craving something sweet, opt for fresh fruit rather than fruit juice or a candy bar. Fresh fruit is sweet but also contains fiber, which will slow the absorption of naturally occurring fructose, making you feel full longer and also aiding in digestive health.
Avoid soda. Soda usually contains the higher concentration of 55% fructose HFCS, and you consume this quite quickly since soda is a liquid. People who are addicted to soda are among those who consume upwards of 55 pounds of this sweetener per year.
If you are going to use sweeteners, use honey or table sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Use any sweetener in moderation.
If you want to cut out HFCS completely, you are likely going to have to make some more dramatic changes to your diet if you are currently eating like the average American. As can be seen in the list of foods above where it is found, HFCS lurks in even “healthy” foods. Even if you are unable to completely cut it out, however, just cutting back on it can improve your overall health and put you less at risk for some major problems down the road.
Will You Experience Withdrawal from High Fructose Corn Syrup?
Sugar is addictive. People who have tried the Whole 30 diet or gone Paleo can probably attest to a few withdrawal symptoms like headaches and fatigue in the first few days or weeks or their diet change. HFCS, since it is extremely sweet and concentrated, is even more highly addictive than table sugar—some compare its beta-endorphin releasing effects to that of cocaine.
If you cut it out from your diet, or even just cut back on it, you could experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those of giving up caffeine. You might have a slight headache, be irritable, and be more tired than usual. These symptoms will usually last a few days up to three weeks. After that, you should feel better than you did while consuming high amounts of HFCS, and you should crave junk food less often.
Try Cutting Back HFCS Consumption
Although the jury is still out as to exactly how bad HFCS is for us compared to other sweeteners, almost everyone agrees that too much sugar equals big health problems. HFCS contains such high quantities of hard-to-process fructose that it makes it too easy to consume toxic amounts of sugar. Cutting back on it, or on any sweetener, can only be a good thing.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Megan Machucho