Corn was once a simple food, chewed off the cob. Now, with corn reinvented and transformed, it takes a chemist to recognize all its offspring. Among these is high-fructose corn syrup (a gooey sweetener used in soft drinks, meats, cheeses, and dozens more foods) that appeases confectionary craving. But recent studies have raised concerns about the syrup by drawing links to obesity and other health effects.
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), also called isoglucose, is mainly a blend of two sugars, fructose and glucose. Soda and ice cream often blend 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, while the HFCS used in canned fruits and condiments is generally a 42/48 percent mix (with other ingredients). White sugar is a 50/50 split.
In the United States, heavy corn subsidies and sugar-import barriers have made HFCS some 20 percent cheaper than sugar. The United States accounted for nearly 80 percent of global production in 2004 and U.S. consumers swallowed 58 pounds of the syrup per person last year in various products, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other producers include Japan, Argentina, the European Union, and China.
Some claim that HFCS's global expansion and the parallel increase in obesity are linked. The concerned dietitians argue that, unlike glucose, which triggers appetite-suppressing signals in the body, fructose does not tell its eaters to stop. The theory remains unproven, but a growing body of literature has suggested the syrup may indeed counteract the satiation-hormone leptin. Conflicting research, supported by the American Beverage Institute, insists HFCS is no different than other sweeteners and is "safe in moderation."
The latest health concern stems from a recent Environment Health study that found mercury in samples from two HFCS manufacturers. Chemicals mixed during production to stabilize pH may have contributed the toxic metal, the study said. The industry accuses the research of using "scant data of questionable quality."
The environmental impact...