High Fructose Corn Syrup, Humor, and Grandma

Afternoon Pie

Grandma made a wicked pecan pie, and so did Mom, and I’ve baked a pecan pie or two myself. I might bake one again some day. So I was very interested to learn, from Liz Gutman at Serious Eats, the difference between traditional, regular corn syrup, and the relatively new-fangled high fructose corn syrup that people are so worked up about these days. Here is the lowdown:

Corn syrup is made by adding an enzyme to cornstarch that breaks it down into sugars. This is exactly the same way that brown rice syrup, barley syrup, and many other corn syrup alternatives are made: same process, different grain. HFCS undergoes further enzymatic processing, increasing the amount of sweeter fructose, which is then mixed with straight corn syrup to achieve a desired sweetness and/or texture.

Of course, that’s not all; Gutman has more to say about the differences between old-school corn syrup and the radically different HFCS, so check it out.

Now, from the Corn Refiners Association, comes a TV commercial called “Brothers.” The older bro, strangely reminiscent of Wally Cleaver, catches his younger sibling eating a breakfast product saturated with high fructose corn syrup, and delivers a scathing put-down. The wiser, younger brother, strangely reminiscent of the Beav, puts the smart aleck in his place by revealing that HFCS is nutritionally the same as sugar.

Funny thing about that: apparently, HFCS both is, and is not, nutritionally the same as sugar. Not exactly. We have remarked on the research from Princeton University showing that, calorie for calorie, HFCS somehow transmutes into more actual body fat than refined sugar does. In other words, although a dose of either sweetener may contain the same amount of fuel, which theoretically ought to supply the same amount of energy, the body mysteriously decides to retain more of the HFCS calories and paste them onto your hips.

The younger brother also chastens the older by saying that HFCS is made from corn. The implication being, of course, that corn is a vegetable, and everyone knows that vegetables are good for you.

Well, as Dr. Pretlow points out, another commodity made from corn is booze, but few people would feed their kids moonshine for breakfast. It’s always very tempting for creative folks to satirize any logical fallacy the ancient Romans had a name for, or any argument described by Schopenhauer in his “Stratagems.”

In fact, some creative folks took this concept and ran with it, making a parody “Sweet Surprise” commercial. It starts with a young man cooking up a spoon of heroin. When his friend objects, the boy with a tourniquet on his arm reminds the friend that opium is a natural product made from poppies.

This does bring back memories. I once brought home something yummy from the farmers’ market and told my less-than-enthusiastic boyfriend, “It’s organic.” To which he replied, “So is manure, but I don’t eat that either.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Serious Chocolate: Corn Syrup vs. HFCS,” SeriousEats.com, 06/30/10
Source: “Brothers,” Youtube.com
Source: “HFCS ‘Brothers’ Ad Parody — Sweet Surprise,” YouTube.com
Image by chadmiller, used under its Creative Commons license.

0 Responses

  1. Pat,

    I read your article with interest, but I did want to clear up a common misconception.

    Scientists continue to confirm that high fructose corn syrup is no different from other sweeteners. It is essentially the same as table sugar and honey, and has the same number of calories.

    The type of high fructose corn syrup used in soft drinks has about the same amount of fructose as sugar, and is essentially the same as sugar. The high fructose corn syrup used in breads, jams and yogurt is 42% fructose – actually less fructose than what’s found in sugar.

    The Princeton study you mention unnecessarily confuses consumers about the human metabolism of common sugars in the diet. A sugar is a sugar whether it comes from cane, corn, or beets. Both sugar and high fructose corn syrup are handled the same by the body. No metabolic effects have been found in studies that compare sugar and high fructose corn syrup consumption in humans.

    Consumers should not be misled by exaggerated studies that feed astronomical amounts of one ingredient to the study subjects, in this case rats. The medical community has long dismissed results from rat dietary studies as being inapplicable to human beings.

    You can rest assured that high fructose corn syrup is safe. The American Medical Association concluded that high fructose corn syrup does not appear to contribute more to obesity than sugar. The American Dietetic Association stated that these two sweeteners are indistinguishable to the human body and are metabolized equivalently.

    Please see what others have to say about the Princeton study before accepting the results.

    “The bottom line is that there is no valid reason for HFCS to be any different than sucrose in the way that it affects your body.” James Krieger, founder of Weightology, LLC. http://weightology.net/weightologyweekly/?page_id=19

    “This study is poorly designed and poorly controlled and does not prove or even suggest that HFCS is more likely to lead to obesity than sucrose [table sugar].” Karen Teff, Ph.D., Associate Director, Institute for Diabetes, Obesity & Metabolism, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine http://www.eatingwell.com/blogs/nicci_micco/2010_03_26/why_the_new_study_on_high_fructose_corn_syrup_and_weight_gain_is_flawed

    “So, I’m skeptical. I don’t think the study produces convincing evidence of a difference between the effects of HFCS and sucrose on the body weight of rats. I’m afraid I have to agree with the Corn Refiners on this one. So does HFCS make rats fat? Sure if you feed them too many calories altogether. Sucrose will do that too.” Marion Nestle, Ph.D., Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University http://www.foodpolitics.com/2010/03/hfcs-makes-rats-fat

    You can also learn more about high fructose corn syrup at http://www.SweetSurprise.com.

    Audrae Erickson, Corn Refiners Association

    1. Audrae,

      Thanks for engaging in this discussion and for identifying yourself as a representative of the Corn Refiners Association.

      You appear to be attempting to make the case that HFCS is no different than sugar, while avoiding the issue of whether refined sweeteners, including sugar, are responsible for childhood obesity. You are not denying that these refined sugars are making children ill (obese). So how can you claim that “You can rest assured that high fructose corn syrup is safe” if it is causing obesity, which is not safe?

      Then you dismiss the validity of all “rat dietary studies,” even though these studies have proven extremely valuable for decades in identifying carcinogens. Don’t you think HFCS went through rat trials before it was allowed in processed foods? The corn refiners like using science when the studies swing in your direction, then condemn the same methods when they work against you.

      While we appreciate your contribution to the blog, we can’t condone the message you’re sending, that HFCS is safe, without acknowledging the contribution HFCS has made to childhood obesity.

      Editor, ChildhoodObesityNews.com

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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