Good Question: Why Should High Fructose Corn Syrup Be Avoided?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Here’s a good question from Sarah about a complicated subject that gets us all a little confused:

Can you give me the scoop on high fructose corn syrup? Why should it be avoided? Is it the same thing as bottled “corn syrup” found in the baking aisle?

For starters, check out our food science post on high fructose corn syrup. This gives some background on how corn syrup is made and the differences between straight corn syrup and the high fructose version.

There are a couple of different issues that go into corn syrup. The main one has to do with how pervasive it has become as an ingredient in processed foods in the United States. It’s in our soft drinks, our candy bars, our cereal, our condiments, and even our bread, just to name a few. Start reading the labels at the grocery store and you’ll be surprised at how often corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup appear as an ingredient!

Part of the argument for avoiding corn syrup is simply that we need to decrease our reliance on this crop. One of the reasons that corn syrup is used so heavily because it’s become the cheapest sweetener for companies to use. It’s become so cheap as a result of many different factors, including an over-abundance of corn, government subsidies, and market pressure.

Another argument for avoiding corn syrup is for health reasons. Not only is corn syrup itself highly processed, but the foods it goes into are highly processed. If you see “corn syrup” on the list of ingredients, chances are you’re looking a highly processed food product. Although it’s a matter of debate whether corn syrup by itself causes obesity and other health conditions, it’s hard to argue that a diet high in processed foods are really part of a healthy diet.

Something that can get lost or misunderstood in all these conversations is that corn syrup by itself is not really bad. Yes, it’s a processed food product, but if we’re only using it a few times a year in special recipes, we don’t feel the need to get too worried about health issues. Of course, some of us who feel strongly about the presence of so much corn in our food system also avoid buying corn syrup as a form of boycotting.

Also, yes, the corn syrup found in the baking aisle is the same corn syrup that is under so much debate. Karo Corn Syrup, one of the more popular brands, also contains high fructose corn syrup. Cane syrups and non-high-fructose corn syrups are available at many natural food stores.

This is a very very basic introduction to the corn syrup situation. We definitely recommend Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan if you’re looking for a more comprehensive exploration of all the issues at hand.

We hope this helps! What else would you add to better explain these issues to Sarah and other curious readers?

(Image: Flickr member mbk licensed under Creative Commons)

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