Hello listeners of the Mad Scientist Podcast! I’m your host Chris Cogswell. Todays episode will focus on an idea that has been out there at least as long as I can remember. Since the dawn of industrial chemistry there have been questions about the safety of these new compounds, some of which have never been found in nature before, on human life and the environment. This discussion became even more important with the use of some of these compounds in foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Of course, we have the modern day fears of GMOs, dye additives and other filler components. But maybe one of, if not the most common chemical fear in our foods is the concern over High Fructose Corn Syrup. High Fructose Corn Syrup is an additive to foods to make them sweeter, to bind them together, and to act as a filler component in various sorts of sweet food-stuff. It’s still extremely commonplace in most of the food eaten by many of us, and especially the poorest amongst us, while those with more cash on hand can shop at one of the almost infinite number of shops, restaurants, and chains who have made a pretty penny off of replacing components like High Fructose Corn Syrup with other sorts of syrup made from agave or aloe or whatever. What is High Fructose Corn Syrup, how do we make it, is it dangerous, and what sort of pseudoscience has been built up around this sticky, sweet compound. Well, put on your best artisanal, locally made petrochemically based fiber sweater and lets get sugary in this weeks episode!
High Fructose corn syrup is one of those boogeymen of the modern age. It has become ubiquitous for the argument about modern food and modern life more generally being inundated with chemicals and chemistries of all sorts. Now on its face I think the argument that “Chemicals are bad!” is sort of silly, because like, everything is chemicals and chemistry, right? But I think a more elegant form of this argument, that we don’t know for certain the affects of changing the natural order of things may have on our world and our health, is a more interesting and worthwhile point of argument. When we create a new compound in a laboratory, we don’t know for certain that it is going to be safe for us, that it won’t destroy some food chain somewhere or cause long term cancers or any number of other terrible things. And in many ways the publics concern about new chemical compounds or processes is supported by history, right? I mean we’ve already done episodes on radioactivity and its affects on human health, on carbon dioxides affect on the environment, and we are going to of course cover even more cases of science gone awry in future episodes. High Fructose Corn Syrup is interesting though because its one of those chemicals that is almost a gateway to the various food related conspiracies that are out there. It has become ubiquitous for the argument that the added chemicals in the food we eat are the cause of a variety of modern societal ills and diseases including obesity, increased rates of cancer, ADHD and Autism, and pretty much every other disease or issue that we can’t find an exact cause for. But is High Fructose Corn Syrup one of these cases of science putting out a dangerous product to the populace before testing it? Is it media hype? Or does the truth sit somewhere in the middle?
The first question we have to answer is just what the hell High Fructose Corn Syrup is, and how do we make it. To answer that question we need to talk about in general the history of food chemistry, food engineering, and in particular the creation and use of various sweeteners. The obvious sweetener we are all thinking about right now is simple table sugar, which chemically is a compound known as Sucrose. Sucrose is a compound that is made up of two smaller molecules formed together, in particular glucose and fructose. These compounds are known as simple sugars, and are extremely important biochemical compounds because they make up a huge amount of different things.
Glucose in particular is a very important molecule in nature, because it is super prevalent in all sorts of things due to it being a cyclic compound. A Cyclic compound is exactly what it sounds like, a chemical that’s shaped like a circle, or in the case of chemicals shaped like a 6 sided hexagon. The hexagon is a particularly interesting shape for chemistry and physics because it is extremely stable, meaning that organic chemicals, those that contain carbon hydrogen and oxygen, tend to like to exist as these compounds if they can. Since its so stable its extremely common in nature, so for example carbohydrates are simply a bunch of glucose or fructose molecules connected to each other into a long chain, cellulose and hemicellulose that make up trees and plants are also a bunch of glucose chains, and a significant amount of other biochemical are made up of various combinations of glucose, fructose, and other compounds very similar to these.
Ok, so glucose and fructose are basically the same thing, and when put together they make sucrose or table sugar. We’re good so far, but you might already see a problem with the argument that fructose is bad for you. If it’s whats in table sugar already, then wouldn’t it make the sense that if fructose is super bad for you then glucose and sucrose might be as well? Why does it matter which sugar is being used in your food, since they digest to the same things anyways? Well dear inquisitive and intelligent listeners, we’ll get to that I promise you, but its pretty much the reason that this part of the argument, that Fructose is worse than Glucose or table sugar, kind of falls apart.
Anyways, if fructose is already found in table sugar, then why make it in the first place? Couldn’t we just be using table sugar in our foods? Well the problem lies in the fact that sucrose is a solid, and solids are annoyingly difficult to work with in very large quantities. See, pretty much the majority of industrial chemistry has been built around the knowledge we’ve gained about flowing fluids, and in particular liquids, around using pipes and pumps, and mixing them together using giant stirring pots. The first chemicals we really had to create a chemical plant to alter for use were petrochemicals, in particular the production of kerosene from heavy crude oils. And really the bulk of industrial chemical engineering hasn’t progressed all that much from the knowledge we gained in moving around petrochemicals and breaking them apart into their individual constituents. And solids are notoriously difficult to process as part of chemical engineering processes. First off, to move solids around requires loads of energy, since they have to be pushed constantly and produce much more friction than liquids or gases. At the same time, moving solids is difficult because they don’t flow in the same way that fluids do, so we need to use sort of interesting methods to move them through chemical plants, such as using rotating screws to force them forward. And solids don’t mix as well, and aren’t as easy to work with in reactors as liquid components are. And we actually have a good example of that in cooking, where liquid components such as corn syrup are often used instead of solid sugar in order to obtain a smoother resulting product. There is also the very real danger of light powders mixing with air to create an explosive mixture, resulting in what’s known as a powder or dust explosion. This is the cause of those Youtube videos were idiotic husbands put baby powder in their wives hair dryers, resulting in a fireball that scorches their wives love right out of them I’m sure. So in general when it comes to chemicals, if we can find a liquid version of the chemical we’re hoping to use in mass production, we will try to use it.
Like we actually hinted at earlier one of the more useful potential sugar sources for a liquid compound come from fruits or vegetables that contain lots of carbohydrates or sugars. So for example beets or agave or corn can be used to create sugary syrups that can then be substituted for solid sucrose. In the case of corn for example the resulting corn syrup is primarily glucose, that simple sugar which we said earlier was very similar chemically to fructose, and a little bit of water. Corn syrup is produced from cornstarch, with starch being a big chain of glucose molecules strung together, by breaking it apart with diluted hydrochloric acid. This breaks the starch into its constituent individual glucose molecules. After removal of the acidic components the resulting water-glucose mixture is then sold as corn syrup, and you can still obviously find it on store shelves today in your supermarket. Initially this glucose syrup was thought of as a potential substitute for sucrose in various foods, but glucose isn’t very soluble in water, which means that there is only a limited amount of glucose that can be mixed with water to give a smooth, homogeneous solution. And glucose has about the same sugary-ness as sucrose, meaning that 1 g of glucose gives about the same sugary taste as 1 g of sucrose. On the other hand fructose, the other component of sucrose, is almost twice as sugary as glucose and sucrose, having a more intense flavor and a more long lasting taste. At the same time, fructose is one of the most soluble sugars in water, meaning that you can put a much higher content of fructose into water as a mixture without getting solid chunks forming in your syrup. It’s these two reasons in particular that initially made fructose such a desirable sucrose substitute, the ability to get more bang for your buck as it were in terms of sugary flavor and the ease with which fructose could be mixed with water to make very concentrated fructose syrups.
The problem however lies in the fact that fructose, although a component of sucrose molecules, is not all that common in everyday life. We find fructose naturally in some fruits and vegetables, particularly honey and berries, although generally in small amounts. Honey is probably the most concentrated natural source for pure fructose, with almost 75% of honey being sugars of some kind, and about half of that being fructose. The fructose content is actually why honey may sometimes seem to be more sweet than table sugar, because of its high fructose content. Anyways, this meant that if food chemists wanted to begin using fructose to replace sucrose, they had to find an economically viable way of producing it. And it is just this method that is utilized to produce High Fructose Corn Syrup.
The method to generate high fructose corn syrup was invented in the 1970’s by the Clinton Corn Processing Company, utilizing an enzymatic digestion process for starches that was developed by Yoshiyuki Takasaki at the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. This method took a very cheap and very widely available stock product, corn, and milled it into cornstarch and simple carbohydrates. The starch is then acidified to produce glucose heavy corn syrup, which is then converted to fructose by the addition of an enzyme. Enzymes are basically compounds that take in a certain molecule, change it in some way, and then allow that changed molecule to escape, leaving the enzyme behind for another reaction. In this way they are catalyst species, with a catalyst in general being some chemical compound that while not consumed in a chemical reaction does make it happen more quickly or with less energy input from the surroundings. The resulting fructose is then mixed with various amounts of water and glucose to change the flavor profile to result in what is known as High Fructose Corn Syrup, a fructose-glucose-water mix that can contain as much as 90% fructose by weight.
Ultimately this means that High Fructose Corn Syrup is extremely similar to glucose or sucrose, and is just another simple sugar that is normally present in the body anyways. It became an extremely commonplace replacement for sugar however because of the economic benefits of utilizing this compound in lieu of other sugars. Because fructose is sweeter in taste than glucose or sucrose it is possible to use less of the compound to produce more flavor, meaning less costs going towards raw materials for the production of foods. Due to its easy solubility in water its possible to transport it and pump it around a chemical plant as a liquid even for very high fructose concentrations, making it much easier to work with than sucrose or glucose. And because of the ease with which the Corn that is the feed stock for High Fructose Corn Syrup is made and its availability in the United States it quickly became much cheaper than competing sugar compounds. This cheapness has only increased with its increased use, causing corn to become a much more important agricultural product of the United States. Adding to this subsidies for corn manufacturers and a pretty solid corn lobby in US politics and you end up with a chokehold on the sugar market. At its peak in 1999 High Fructose Corn Syrup consumption in the United States was as high on average as 37.5 lbs or 17 kg of fructose per person per year. That’s about a third of our average yearly consumption of sugars, significantly higher than would normally be possible without the use of Fructose Syrups in various foods. That number has since decreased to around 15 lbs per person per year for fructose, although our consumption of sugar overall is still near the highest its ever been at around 170 lbs or about 80 kg per year per person.
So alright, that is the history of High Fructose Corn Syrup up to the modern day. Now lets talk about the conspiracies and fears around the compound. Generally I would say the concerns about High Fructose Corn Syrup can be grouped into a few common categories. First is the concern that it is the cause of the obesity epidemic in the United States particularly, but entire Western world in general. Second would be the idea that fructose causes cancers or other chronic illnesses to show themselves that would not normally be as prevalent as they are now. And third, that High Fructose Corn Syrup is making us more susceptible to government mind control and suggestion by making us stupid, depressed, anxious, have ADHD or Autism, or any other variety of mental health challenges. We’ll take each of these in turn, although they are sort of interrelated in kind of strange but fascinating ways.
Now before we get into the obesity argument, lets get something on the table right now. I am a fat dude. I’ve always been varying amounts of husky to chubby to fat, but I haven’t been skinny since like the 2nd grade, and even that was mostly due to nervously throwing up all the time like a misfiring water sprinkler. So any nutritional advice is probably a moot point. I try to eat healthy and remain active, but it has always been a struggle for me. For any health advice you should talk to your doctor, and not get it from a guy who is currently eating a cookie as he writes this episode in a lounging robe.
OK, now that the awkward portion of this episode is over we can move onto the argument that high fructose corn syrup is particularly linked to the obesity epidemic. In a lot of ways this argument has a lot of merits on its surface. The rise of obesity in the United States seems to have coincided with the use of High Fructose Corn Syrup as a replacement for sucrose, starting in the 60’s and continuously growing into the 80’s until today. The problem we are now finding with this argument is that it doesn’t actually appear to be fructose per se that’s the problem, but our overall consumption of empty sugars and calories, and a general lack of exercise amongst the population. This has been true in the vast majority of studies performed, showing no particular link between high fructose corn syrup use and obesity, but rather a link between sugar intake, caloric intake, and lack of exercise and obesity. This is from the abstract of a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition by Moeller et al in Dec. of 2009:
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become an increasingly common food ingredient in the last 40 years. However, there is concern that HFCS consumption increases the risk for obesity and other adverse health outcomes compared to other caloric sweeteners. The most commonly used types of HFCS (HFCS-42 and HFCS-55) are similar in composition to sucrose (table sugar), consisting of roughly equal amounts of fructose and glucose. The primary difference is that these monosaccharides exist free in solution in HFCS, but in disaccharide form in sucrose. The disaccharide sucrose is easily cleaved in the small intestine, so free fructose and glucose are absorbed from both sucrose and HFCS. The advantage to food manufacturers is that the free monosaccharides in HFCS provide better flavor enhancement, stability, freshness, texture, color, pourability, and consistency in foods in comparison to sucrose. Because the composition of HFCS and sucrose is so similar, particularly on absorption by the body, it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity or other conditions than sucrose does. Nevertheless, few studies have evaluated the potentially differential effect of various sweeteners, particularly as they relate to health conditions such as obesity, which develop over relatively long periods of time. Improved nutrient databases are needed to analyze food consumption in epidemiologic studies, as are more strongly designed experimental studies, including those on the mechanism of action and relationship between fructose dose and response. At the present time, there is insufficient evidence to ban or otherwise restrict use of HFCS or other fructose-containing sweeteners in the food supply or to require the use of warning labels on products containing HFCS. Nevertheless, dietary advice to limit consumption of all added caloric sweeteners, including HFCS, is warranted. “
This same general argument, that High Fructose Corn Syrup has no particular link to obesity outside of the general link between sugars and calories and obesity, is found throughout the literature, and I think it’s a safe bet that High Fructose Corn Syrup doesn’t really seem to have much more of an effect on obesity than any other sugar. And this sort of makes sense from our previous discussion, right? If sucrose is safe, and sucrose is almost immediately broken apart in the digestion process to fructose and glucose, than what danger could be posed by consuming simple glucose or fructose in the same quantities? Those who argue for the dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup would say that fructose is not digested in the same way as glucose, and therefore can in fact be causing metabolic disorders or increased fat production or all sorts of other problems. However, the evidence is simply not there to support that claim. Although each of these papers almost always seems to end by suggesting that we should consume less sugars generally, and this is supported by science. But even that argument has recently become extremely heightened in recent months, with a Youtube video of a presentation by Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco Medical School titled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” suggesting that all sugar is as destructive for us as alcohol or nicotine. Now this discussion, that sugar generally in the quantities we consume may be dangerous or lead to heightened diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, or various cancers is still not considered to be supported by the majority of scientists out there, but it’s a more sensible suggestion for study then that a slightly different form of the same compound with the same digestion processes is more dangerous than all the others.
I think part of the problem with fructose versus glucose or sucrose is that there are some compounds where a slight change in chemical functional group, shape or structure, or even chirality, a sort of left handed or right handedness of molecules, can have drastic affects on their use. Chirality is a particularly interesting one, but it’s a concept that is very hard to define using just voice through a podcast. So we’ll do a little experiment together. I want you to look at your hands, unless your driving, in which case I want you to look at the road and ignore what I am saying. In looking at your hands, you’ll notice that your left hand and right hand are composed the same way, have the same structure and number of fingers and everything, but aren’t exactly the same in symmetry because they are mirror images of one another. In other words if you lined your hands up one on top of the other, both palms down, you could not find a way to move them about such that they could be identical to one another. This means that you hands have a property known as chirality, in other words although they are structurally the same they are shaped in such a way that they have entirely different symmetry from one another. Molecules can have the same property, and this can have huge affects on their eventual affect on the body. The most famous example of this is L-Methamphetamine and D-Methamphetamine, with the L version being safe for human consumption and use in a variety of cold medicines, and the right molecule being used to make Ted Nugent palatable. It’s this sort of subtle change in molecular structure that I think makes arguments about fructose and glucose having significantly different properties so sensible sounding at the outset. Frankly I wasn’t sure about the health differences between Fructose or Glucose before starting the research for this episode, but it is a safe bet based on all of the literature that there is no scientifically valid reason to think that one is more dangerous than the other, at least based on what we know now.
Alright, so how about the argument that it causes cancers, or can make us stupid, or cause us to have mental health problems? Well again this would have to be true of sucrose and glucose as well, and any other sugar frankly, since all of the scientific evidence supports the idea that these compounds are digested and used by the body in the same ways. Again the argument sort of falls away, with one caveat however. During the 90’s some high Fructose Corn Syrup manufacturing utilized an electrochemical process that utilized a mercury component, some of which appeared to have leaked into some batches of High Fructose Corn Syrup. Now supposedly all industrial methods of producing corn syrups today no longer use this electrochemical process, and so the threat of mercury being found in these compounds should no longer be an issue. And like with anything involving high fructose corn syrup there is a lot of speculation about how much mercury was found, what form the mercury was in, and what sort of political and economic gains are present for either side of the argument on this one. Regardless, this scare was enough to further damage the High Fructose Corn Syrup name to the point that Corn Manufacturers attempted to change the name of this additive to Corn Sugar in the late 2000’s, with the FDA actually telling them that they could not officially alter the name of the compound.
One final interesting point I wanted to get into here is kind of a fascinating one, the idea that being fat is a sign of being unintelligent. The societal idea of the oafish lay about, the fat simpleton, or the actively anti-intellectual country bumpkin with the rounded stomach is one that is super common in Western imagery in the modern age. I often wonder what amount of TV news is accepted so readily without understanding or critical thinking because the anchors are attractive men and women, who we assume must be smart and ethical and good because their outsides surely represent their insides. It’s a very interesting societal knee jerk reaction, one that I think is found in arguments like this with high fructose corn syrup. Why would high fructose corn syrup, a sugar additive, make us stupid? Why does that seem to have some intrinsic sensibility to it, some nagging feeling that it confirms some prejudice that has been ingrained in us by our culture. It’s a point I think is important here and in all arguments around health of all kinds, not just physical but also mental, and one that I think we could honestly do an entire series on if there was enough interest.
Alright, so High Fructose Corn Syrup, not exactly as dangerous as many people claim, but still potentially not harmless. Or at least just as harmful as any other high calorie, low nutrition food. That is it for this weeks episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. We’ll be recording some awesome guest spots this month, including a few from your favorite Dark Myths shows and some from other awesome podcasting folks. As always you can send your questions or comments to us on twitter, facebook, instagram, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org all one word. If you like the show consider helping us out by contributing on the Patreon page, by giving us a review on I-tunes or any other podcast listening app, or by telling a friend about the show. Thank you again so much for listening.