High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) first came under fire when an article written by Popkin in 2004 linked the rapid increase in HFCS consumption over the 25 previous years to a similarly rapid increase in American obesity rates. But in an interview with this website published earlier this week, Dr Popkin said that he was wrong in this theory, saying that an increase in consumption of all fructose-containing sweeteners – including sugar and even the natural sugars found in fruit juice – is to blame.
CRA president Audrae Erickson told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “To his credit Professor Popkin has acknowledged that high fructose corn syrup is handled by the body in the same way as other caloric sweeteners…Our industry is very pleased.”
Erickson is optimistic that the industry can deal with the image problems that high fructose corn syrup has suffered, and Popkin’s turnaround is clearly helpful to its cause.
However, on the back of consumer demand, manufacturers have been removing HFCS from their products, often reformulating with sugar. And the ingredient’s image also suffered a blow when a row broke out about whether it counts as natural, due to a dispute with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the different processes used to produce it. The FDA finally said that it would consider high fructose corn syrup to be natural if synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing,
“Consumers have been confused,” said Erickson. “It’s understandable because the terminology is complex…The name itself lends itself to the confusion.”
Fructose vs. HFCS
There are three different types of HFCS – one that is 55 percent fructose and 42 percent glucose (most commonly found in soft drinks), one that is 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose (usually used in food products), and one used for specialty applications that is 90 percent fructose and 10 percent glucose.
Pure fructose on its own – not HFCS – has been linked to weight gain in some animal studies, and this could be where some confusion arises, but Erickson and other industry members have repeatedly pointed out that the HFCS used in foods and beverages is not dissimilar in its makeup to sugar (sucrose), which contains 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Therefore, compared to sugar, the HFCS commonly found in foods is actually low-fructose, she said.
Looking for an edge
Erickson also insists that those manufacturers who reformulate with other caloric sweeteners are unlikely to see strong benefits.
“In tough economic times every industry…is looking to have an edge on the competition,” she said. “This has not given them an edge.”
She added that HFCS is cheaper than sugar, and has different functional roles to play in formulation. In particular, she cites moisture retention, so baked goods stay fresher for longer; a lower freezing point so juices and sauces are pourable straight from the freezer; and it allows for foods like spaghetti sauce to taste the same with every batch, independent of which variety of tomatoes is used to make it, or which season it is.
“We [consumers] take these characteristics for granted,” she said. “…High fructose corn syrup has a role to play in the availability of many food choices and their affordability which is key in today’s food economy.”
Erickson also thinks that progress has been made with problems of perception. The Corn Refiners Association launched an advertising campaign last summer, dubbed Sweet Surprise, in which it suggested that consumers are ill-informed about the ingredient, and she believes it was effective.
“Many consumers, as a result of the campaign we launched last summer, now realize that high fructose corn syrup is handled the same way by the body,” she said.
But when the food industry’s motives are so often being called into question by consumers, why should consumers believe the CRA when it makes claims about high fructose corn syrup?
“Someone has to stand up and correct the science. We are presenting independent studies,” she said.