High Fructose Corn Syrup. Good? Bad? Evil? Many people take it as a safe assumption that HFCS is an inferior substance with dubious merits. Somewhere in the background one might hear the HFCS industry protesting that no one can name exactly what is wrong with it. I didn't plan on weighing in on this epic debate today but I got to reading about it (yeah that's what I do in my free time) and thought it would be worth addressing.
Why We Use It
Interesting, the use of HFCS as a sugar replacement in the United States has less to do with nutritional value* or even cost of production than it does with international politics.
As you may have noticed, through such mechanisms as the World Trade Organization, the countries of the world have been eliminating tariffs and quotas on most traded goods. However, agriculture in general has been largely shielded from deregulation, and, for unclear reasons, sugar beet/cane production specifically has been allowed to remain heavily regulated.
Sugar beets and cane are both tropical plants right? So it follows that Brazil is the largest producer of these. The second largest? Thanks to intense subsidies, quotas and tariffs, The European Union!
Why is this relevant to this discussion? Because everywhere else in the world sugar is cheaper than HFCS -- ie, sugar IS more efficient to produce. However due to America's own sugar subsidies and tariffs, sugar costs on average twice as much in the United States as it does anywhere else in the world. As such, cocoa-cola, pepsi-cola and everyone else uses natural sugar everywhere else in the world.
More efficient to produce is better for the world because then there's more of everything to go around, so one point for naturally occurring sugar.
* though it probably helps that it probably won't kill you
The PR Battle
Despite popular belief, as far as I can tell research does not support the argument that HFCS is actually bad for you (ref). However, many major companies are switching over to natural sugar due simply to the negative sentiment toward HFCS.
A quote from this article:
Even though there is no proof that high-fructose corn syrup is more harmful than sugar, [Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. Chief Operating Officer Ken] Romanzi said the maker of juices and other products "didn't want any negative implication that there was something bad for people in our Ocean Spray products."
"The problem," Romanzi said, "is that perception is reality in the minds of consumers."
On the opposite side of things, the PR departments of HFCS producers, such as the company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), make it sound like the HFCS industry is the innocent victim of unfounded misleading attacks. However, I'd like to point out that it wouldn't even be practical to use HFCS if this industry wasn't so busy lobbying to keep up the sugar tariffs (and believe me they are).
Always distrustful of second-hand reports, I decided to look into the science of the matter myself. As far as I can tell, "natural sugar," ie sugar from sugar beets or sugar cane, ie sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose bound together as one molecule. High fructose corn syrup is made by, through a convoluted process, turning corn syrup into glucose, and then turning some of it entirely into fructose, and then mixing them together. This is relevant because the human stomach can regulate the breakdown of sucrose during digestion through the use of an enzyme which separates sucrose into its component parts -- but because HFCS is already broken down, the body has less control over its digestion rate.
Anyway, so there you have it. "It" being.. probably still totally unclear. But after looking into it I'm going to go ahead and say that it appears that one can't really say HFCS is worse for you than sugar, health-wise. Flavour-wise, there may be a difference. I know my favourite beverages use real sugar but it might be just that all the OTHER ingredients they use are the best.
So, sugar versus high fructose corn syrup? I say... use honey. I was going to say that anywaay at least as a joke but this article actually does say in one of its conclusionary paragraphs "as for tabletop sweeteners, the most Earth-friendly options are locally produced organic honey and real maple syrup"
Bibliography (yes this entry has a bibliography -- in case you wanted to check out the articles yourself, because I know _I_ would always rather cut out as many middlemen as I can for my information)
Natural Sugar Versus High Fructose Corn Syrup - Chicago Tribune.com
High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Not So Sweet for the Planet - The Washington Post - (though I don't know if I buy their thesis that HFCS is evil because CORN is evil because of the environmental impact of corn farming)
A Speculation About Why ADM’s HFCS Business is Booming. - Grist.org - (about how the use of cane sugar for ethanol, through a chain reaction, raises the market price for HFCS. It seems like ethanol use could short-cut this chain of competing substitute goods with the fact that CORN farmers are faced with a choice between making ethanol or making HFCS)
and of course the wikipedia entries on HFCS & sugar (relevant portion of the latter being comments on subsidies)