HFCS versus sugar: What's in a name?

by Editorial Staff
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As discussion heats up on high-fructose corn syrup and sugar, we’re reminded of Gertrude Stein, an American writer of some note who penned the famous line "a rose is a rose is a rose." The question for industry today is: What is HFCS and is it sugar?

When HFCS was first developed in the early 1970s, it was done primarily by scientists and engineers. A 1993 presentation by the Corn Refiners Association entitled "Nutritive Sweeteners from Corn" contains the following:

"Starch hydrolysis was first practiced commercially in the U.S. in 1842 and reached significant proportions about 1857. While potatoes served as the early source for starch and syrup, cast or chip sugar (dextrose), originally identified as corn sugar, was produced from corn starch at a plant in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1866. In Europe the starch industry developed principally on potato starch derived as a byproduct of a food crop, but in the United States it flourished with the corn crop. It furnished a major outlet for a raw material used originally in overwhelming proportion for animal feed. In drawing on the native grain as a source of industrial products for both feed and new food applications, the corn refining industry has developed a uniquely American identity and presents a remarkable chapter in man’s ‘pursuit of sweetness.’"

It goes on.

"However, sweetness differences remained a major challenge to the corn refining industry until the 1970s. This challenge was met in a spectacular way by the development of commercial processes for the enzyme catalyzed isomerization of glucose (dextrose) to the sweeter sugar, fructose (levulose). Subsequent development of separation processes for enriching the fructose content not only allowed production of syrups with higher fructose content than may be produced by enzymatic action alone, but allowed the manufacture of pure crystalline fructose from starch.

"Isomerization technology enabled the industry to produce both of the simple sugars that make up sucrose and thus substantially match total invert syrup (invert syrup is a product of partial or complete hydrolysis sucrose). The resulting product, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), was a development of profound significance for the food industry and the U.S. economy. Syrups of virtually any combination of viscosity and sweetness as well as other functional specifications can now be produced from corn starch."

It was obvious to the pioneers of HFCS that it should be called what it was — high-fructose corn syrup. In retrospect, there were worse possibilities. Clinton Corn, the original developer of HFCS in the United States based on Japanese technology, named their product Isomerose after the Isomerose enzyme used to convert dextrose syrup to fructose syrup. It is unlikely the typical consumer, were they to have done a consumer panel, felt a great fondness for enzymes.

Therefore, unlike the words sugar and honey, which may be argued are "warm words," and isomerose is something that a typical person might want to avoid through frequent hand washings and boycotting crowded rooms.

But in 1980 HFCS was a new product that consumer packaged food companies, especially the bottlers, embraced only after sucrose prices began to rise in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The product’s purity was improved, distribution improved, and most importantly HFCS sold at more than a 15% discount to sugar. By 1993 HFCS had captured essentially half of the industrial sweetener demand and products from corn had captured 54% of the total caloric sweetener market versus 31% in 1980.

It was in 1993 that the HFCS industry and agricultural co-ops saw HFCS growth extending dramatically into the future, particularly south into Mexico with the advent of free sweetener trade promised by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Between a 30% and 50% increase in HFCS capacity was installed in an 18-month period and not surprisingly, prices for HFCS collapsed.

The injuries to the corn wet milling industry were largely supply/demand issues until 2000, when the low-carbohydrate diet fad erupted. If it was a carb — sugar, HFCS, starch — the perception was it was going to make you obese.

From 2002-09 peer-reviewed journal articles and commentaries fueled media interest in sugars, and by the mid-2000s, it became fashionable to attack HFCS. Perhaps too late, the industry decided it was necessary to defend HFCS. They undertook the difficult task of defending a product that they and many believed to be safe or, at least no more problematic than sugar. Focusing on the issue of public perception, some thought it was too much to expect consumers to differentiate between high fructose and fructose, which is metabolized differently than sugar. Could the answer for consumers be as simple as a name change? We may find out.

Perhaps the more appropriate quote to consider is not Ms. Stein’s existential statement about roses but rather William Shakespeare’s question from Romeo and Juliet. "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

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