Clarified – high fructose corn syrup
October 5th, 2010
08:00 AM ET
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In cooking, the process of clarification entails straining out extraneous muck from liquids so that they might be pure, clear and ideal for consumption. With this series on food terminology we're attempting to do the same. No politics - just the facts about what the words mean.

There's major debate swirling about the allegedly adverse effects that high fructose corn syrup may having on Americans' diets. Opponents say it's a big factor in the US population's increasing levels of obesity. Advocates claim that it's just a natural, corn-based sweetener, and that it's being unfairly maligned.

But what exactly is it, and how is it made?

The process is not new. In 1957, Richard O. Marshall and Earl R. Kooi developed a process to convert some of the glucose of corn syrup to fructose to tailor its level of sweetness.

The corn syrup is made by first steeping kernels of corn in a solution of 122°F-140°F water and a small percentage of sulfur dioxide - to prevent excessive bacterial growth - for 30-40 hours. This hydrates the kernels, more than doubling their size and breaks gluten bonds down to release starch.

The steeping water, which then contains nutrients as a result of the process, is condensed for use in animal feed and fermentation processes. The kernels are coarsely ground to break the germ down, then spun in cyclone germ separators. First, the germ is pumped onto screens and has the starch washed off it, then it's sent through chemical and mechanical processes to extract corn oil, which is then refined. The germ residue is used in animal feed.

The corn and starch are then sent through a second, more intensive milling process that releases the starch and gluten from the fiber in the kernel. The fiber is screened out, milled again, then piped off to - you guessed it - become animal feed. The starch and gluten that remains is piped off to a starch separator.

In this next centrifuge, gluten and starch separate easily. The gluten is sent off to become, yes, animal feed. The starch is diluted, washed 8-14 times to remove any residual gluten protein, and then rediluted and washed again to produce high quality starch. Some of this starch is dried and sold as unmodified corn starch, and the rest converted into corn syrups and dextrose - also known as D-glucose.

From this humble kernel comes:

Hulls: used for animal feed and scientists are working on new applications for corn fiber oil, patented as "AmaizingOil" and a corn fiber gum, "Zeagen" which could be used as a thickener in culinary and industrial applications

Oil: used for cooking, biodiesel fuel, paint, ink, pharmaceuticals and other products.

Protein: used as animal feed or as an herbicide

Starch: used for fabric sizing, surface coating, adhesives, anticaking agents, mold-release agents, dusting powder, thickening agents, "drilling mud" employed to cool down superheated oil drilling bits, dextrose and corn syrups

It's that last one we're after. The starch, in a water suspension, is treated with enzymes - namely alpha-amylase, which is derived from a bacteria - to break down long chemical chains of pure glucose into shorter chains called polysaccharides. Then these shorter chains are treated with an enzyme, glucoamylase - which is derived from from a fungus called Aspergillus. This fermentation converts the mixture, or "slurry" into almost pure glucose. If other sugars like maltose are desired, different combinations of enzymes and acids are used, for varying times.

This glucose mixture is then poured over columns containing an enzyme called glucose-isomerase, which converts the pure glucose into a glucose-fructose mixture. This is then distilled to a 90% fructose solution using a process called liquid chromatography.

This higher fructose liquid is then blended back into the original mixture to net out at a solution of 55% fructose and 45% glucose: known in the industry as high fructose corn syrup or HFCS.

Despite the complicated process and high cost of at least one key ingredient - the glucose-isomerase - HFCS is often a cheaper ingredient than sugar for manufacturers for several reasons. Because it can be produced domestically, it is not subject to the USDA tariffs and quotas that drive up the price of cane sugar. It can also easily be packed into tankers and driven across country. Additionally, corn subsidies to US farmers - $3,975,606,299 in 2009 alone - make corn a cheap and plentiful commodity.

And because of its relative inexpensiveness, high fructose corn syrup is a common sweetening agent in countless packaged foods, from soft drinks and baked goods, to tomato sauce, salad dressings, jellies and ketchup.

That makes for some pretty sweet business for the makers of "corn sugar"- as the Corn Refiners Association is now lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to call the stuff.

Previously – Is high fructose corn syrup getting a bad rap?

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soundoff (442 Responses)
  1. bee pollen

    That you are supposed to lose your breast any time you bee pollen are very little but excess fat...but I've missing 27 lbs . and i even now hold the similar size...I assume it may differ from person to human being.......and its not a weird query mainly because I requested it ahead of...have faith in me! :)

    November 23, 2013 at 4:22 am |
  2. Savana

    I think you should remove a lot of these comments. It's just too much. Or at least put it on another page, where it is more organized.

    September 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Geez

      Maybe you should only visit and leave comments on

      September 24, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
  3. marshall

    buy american....

    October 26, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  4. dp

    While it may be chemically the same fructose you get from fruits, you can argue that the way it is consumed may have an adverse affect on the body. If you were to consume same amount of fructose in a 12 oz soda you would probably need to eat a couple of apples. With an apple you are also consuming a lot of fiber which most likely affects how the sugar is absorbed by the body. Maybe our bodies are not adapted to consume sugar in such a pure form. Interesting that obesity has seemed to increase with the use of HFCS along with the fat free craze.

    October 24, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  5. maximillian

    i agree with those above who raise concern about HFCS. I agree with the comments of 'Chas' that many processed foods are not good for us, whether or not they can be assimilated (what ever that means). The american food supply is regulated by self interested parties and also is, by and large, crap. If you go to Europe and look at the ingredients in 'junk food' – cake , cookies etc it will typically have about 1/4 to 1/2 the number of ingredients of similar food items sold in the USA. I am an MD but it certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that putting a bunch of chemicals in your body is not only unnatural but also simply unhealthy.

    October 20, 2010 at 9:53 pm |
  6. varone

    This article didnt answer the question; is it bad or isnt it. It informed the reader of the process of how High Fructose Corn Syrup is made. Anyone clicking on this article would have some familiarity with the process and what HFCS is.

    October 19, 2010 at 8:54 am |
  7. Angie

    The real problem shouldn't be whether HFCS is the same 'sugar' we find in fruit etc. The issue is that corn and corn products are used in a growing number of the foods we consume because it is CHEAP. Due to government subsidizing and agricultural policies over the past few decades supply is larger than the demand. Instead of our policies keep production in line with demand they encourage overproduction and then come up with ways to use these commodity crops. And now it's cheaper to buy junk food such as soft drinks, chips, snack cakes (empty calories) than it is to buy whole foods.

    October 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  8. Joe

    this is just another article to get the health nuts worked they can complain and try to mess up food and other things for others.. more bull sh**

    October 13, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  9. Adrian Zupp

    I think it's great that people are so engaged over this subject. Our food supply and diet are very important issues.

    I recently blogged on these things. Here's the link to the first of those blog posts:

    Take care,
    Adrian Zupp

    October 13, 2010 at 8:16 am |
  10. zoglet73

    can someone please tell me how you're supposed to practice moderation on this crap when it's in everything including my Nyquil and Dayquil. I mean really WTF it's cough syrup.

    October 12, 2010 at 10:03 am |
  11. WinchLock

    High Fructose Corn Syrup is only cheaper because the US pumps massive subsidies into the corn industry. I guarantee you, if the government offered the kinds of subsidies for sugar cane as corn, farmers in the south would be growing it like wildfire (much like they once did). I try to avoid HFCS when I can and have even been buying sodas that use cane sugar. I recently noticed that both Dr. Pepper, and several Pepsi products (Sierra Mist and Mountain Dew) have been selling drinks made with cane sugar. In all three cases they tasted better than the HFCS kind, in my opinion.

    October 11, 2010 at 9:55 am |
  12. Mark Knight

    Stories like this are used by the manufacturers just like BP used "vacation" ads on the gulf coast to keep states effected by the oil spill happy and to lure people there, just like big pharmaceutical companies brand a disease as something major and convince throngs of people they need the drug they are selling for it. So do the people making HFCS get writers to put out articles like this one to muddy the waters and make people forget just how bad this trash is, and if they can make some ad revenue off all the page hits the story gets, all the better. Dont be fooled by the man behind the curtain, you are being played.

    October 11, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  13. Whatever

    Moderation and exercise are key to living healthy. Make the healthy choice not to eat at any restaurant that services burgers or any other item with portions as big as your head. Don't want to consume so much HFCS? Stop buying and eating processed food. I'll bet there is something else on the 50 item ingredient list that is worse for you then HFCS. I can't help but chuckle as I read the comments. Ignorance and conspiracy theories are out of control in the US. There is an almost complete lack of personal responsibility when it comes to healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. I don't need the government to ban certain products. I just don't buy them. I send a message with my wallet and if everyone did that we would all be a lot better off.

    All of the pseudo-chemists need to retake chemistry 101.

    October 11, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  14. Randy

    The reason it is less costly is because the gov. put a high tarrif on sugar imports to aid the corn industry. If it wasn't for the tarrifs, HFC would be too expensive and all manufractures would go back to sugar.

    October 11, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  15. Curtis

    While knowing how HFCS is made is nice and all, an article on the differences between sugar and HFCS would have been much more useful. The difference is that, while sugar and HFCS both contain fructose and glucose, in sugar they are chemically bonded while in HFCS they are not bonded.
    Fructose on it's own requires the GLUT5 transporter (located mainly in the liver) whlie fructose+glucose bonded need the GLUT1 and GLUT4 transporters (located in most cells in your body.) Because of this, much if the fructose in HFCS goes straight to the liver which causes high caloric sensing in the liver. The liver then tells the brain that too many calories are being consumed, and what does your body do when you eat too many calories? It stores them as fat.
    Sugar on the other hand doesn't put a high calorie load on any particular part of the body like HFCS, so it doesn't necessarily trigger the same reaction in the liver.
    I'm not saying sugar is considerably better than HFCS, but I am saying that it's much easier for HFCS to push your liver in to a high calorie sensing state.
    Don't take my work for it though, look up the science behind it yourself.

    October 11, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  16. Fiona

    So much ignorance, misinformation and hysteria on the subject of refined sugars! Sugar is not evil, but too much sugar –in any form - can be deadly. The problem with HFCS is that because it is added to so many foods where you don't expect to find it, a consumer of processed and fast foods can far too easily eat twice or three times (or more) the RDA for in and day out.

    What IS evil is the way food companies purposely use different forms of sugar in a single product so that sugar will not appear as one of the top ingredients (even if, cumulatively, sugar is one of the largest components of the recipe). I always make a point of noting how many grams of sugar per serving a product has. I avoid products with HFCS because I dislike the taste and mouthfeel of that stuff - but it is not the poison some make it out to be.

    October 11, 2010 at 3:49 am |
  17. mike

    We get it. There are differing opinions and different studies that lead different people to different opinions. It is not clear cut. If you ingest too much of anything; it is not healthy......hence the phrase "too much". Read all you can, form an opinion, don't eat too much of anything........and have fun. Life is short and rat studies are just that. I'm certain if I did research on the computer monitor I'm sitting in front of right now I could find countless blogs online on how unsafe it is: And how I will most likely get cancer from TOO MUCH exposure. You can find danger anywhere you look. The most dangerous thing you can do is drive a car; but almost everyone does that even though you don't have to. When so called experts (scientists, doctors, nutritionists) have a high percentage of disagreement: Some of what all of them are saying is most likely true. Be true to yourself, know your body, and excercise. I personally do not feel good after eating a lot of 'junk food', candy, soda, I listen to that and don't do it TOO MUCH.......

    October 11, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  18. Big3rd

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE GO ON YOUTUBE and WATCH THE VIDEO "SUGAR: THE BITTER TRUTH." It is THEE most informative and best video you will see on this subject. The professor literally breaks down how our bodies break this POISON down from A to Z. HFCS is everywhere and so is diabetes and obesity. DO NOT ignore what is extremely obvious. The companies do not care about people, they care about profit and making a cheap sweetner adds substantial profits to their margins. This article, like most articles and forms of advertisements, do not and WILL NOT go into how the body breaks this down for obvious reasons. BE SMART, BE INFORMED.

    October 11, 2010 at 1:25 am |
    • Joe

      what a conspiracy health nut.

      October 15, 2010 at 1:08 am |
  19. Derek

    "A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.

    In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides. The researchers say the work sheds light on the factors contributing to obesity trends in the United States."

    October 11, 2010 at 1:23 am |
  20. englishteacherx

    uh, hey, here's a thought - stop drinking soda and eating junk food, and you'll thereby avoid HFCS? You people act like the government is foricbly knocking it down your throats. Even if Twinkies and Pepsi have cane sugar - and I know this is shocking news - they're not good for you! Have a banana, you know?

    October 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
    • Whatever

      Genius! Unfortunately, the US is full of mindless, media zombies with short attention spans who are incapable of forming their own opinions. Oh look! A story about Lindsay Lohan!!!

      October 11, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  21. vulcan

    If the logic is as simple as "Sugar is sugar immaterial of the source" ... why can't we extract sugar from dead fat people ? They consume a lot of it. The process will be complicated but "Sugar is Sugar" ... right ?

    October 10, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
  22. gus

    Why go through the complicated process just to produce sugar. Sugar derived from sugar cane go through a much simpler process. It is also more in its natural state in terms of sugar. Making sugar from corn does not make sense.

    October 10, 2010 at 9:43 pm |
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