How Sweet It’s Not: High Fructose Corn Syrup

OK, the commercials are beating your eardrums bloody. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is “liquid sugar.” You’ve seen that the sweetness is the same, so those commercials are starting to make sense. Except this is not a chemistry class. It’s an economics class.

We are all now Children of the Corn. Image from

No one disputes that corn syrup is just as sweet as sugar. It’s the message behind the sugar that has my attention. If you’ve seen this  commercial about high fructose corn syrup, you know the point of the commercial is that corn syrup is very much like sugar, and fine in moderation. I began to wonder why this commercial is being run. Are we having a crisis in understanding sweetness? I didn’t think so. Here are some things to think about:

1. Who is paying for the commercial? As Deep Throat said, “Follow the money.” The person who is paying for this must have a reason for running it.

2. Why is the message ‘high fructose corn syrup is fine in moderation” important to the person paying for it? What is the payoff? Perhaps it is time for a little chemistry after all.  HFCS contains reactive carbonyls, responsible for the damage diabetes causes. Sugar does not contain carbonyls. Because of the prevalence of HFCS in our food, we don’t know how many carbonyls we’re swallowing.

3. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is a sweetener, but I started checking labels and it is also in bread, ketchup, cereals, instant stuffing, Shake n Bake glaze, tonic water, Starbucks Frapuccino, Eggo pancakes, Heinz 57 sauce, Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Robitussin cough syrup. And more food and medicine items than I can list. Why is it in items that don’t need sweetening or that could use sugar instead?

3. What does the company paying for the commercial want the result to be?

4. What is the complaint against high fructose corn syrup?

5. How is corn altered to create high fructose corn syrup? (I noticed that the word “natural” isn’t in the commercial. “Natural” is such a keyword there must be a reason it’s missing.

6. Who stands to gain financially from the sale of lots of corn?

Each answer will bring more questions. And eventually your discover facts you didn’t know before. That there is a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, off the Texan shore. It’s the size of New Jersey and nothing can live there, there is no oxygen left in that part of the ocean. What happened to it? Well, all the organisms were killed off by the runoff from giant corn fields. The fertilizer is one culprit and the herbicide atrazine is another. All crops require some help, but corn is particularly energy-INefficient. Corn is grown in the same plot of land year after year, so it needs more fertilizer and herbicides than other crops.

Taxes on imported sugar keeps the price of corn used for sugar fairly low, making it easy to use and over time, gave us a taste for the sweet taste of it in food. Now the corn fields are being turned to fuel for our cars, and people are starting to eat less processed (and that means HFCS) food. So to keep up the use, we start to see commercials praising it as a yummy food used “in moderation.” Because we are not using it in moderation. In fact, we can hardly get away from it.

You can read more about HFCS in this Washington Post article. Meanwhile, those few questions turned up a whole interesting string of facts that are all tied together and make for some interesting diet decisions–about corn.

A spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down, but don’t swallow everything you hear without asking some questions.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach who asks a lot of questions and lives happily in ambiguity. See her work at