The History of High Fructose Corn Syrup

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The History of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The History of High Fructose Corn Syrup (Image: A train car filled with high-fructose corn syrup. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

For those with a sweet tooth, high fructose corn syrup has been satisfying cravings since 1977. As the name suggests, high fructose corn syrup is derived from corn. Though an unlikely source of sugar, high fructose corn syrup is one of the most popular sweeteners in America. All you have to do is look on the label of many foods to see the sweetener as an ingredient.

Creating High Fructose Corn Syrup

Until 1957, no one believed corn could be sweet. As for high fructose corn syrup, how could that be? Corn has glucose not fructose. Researchers created an enzyme called glucose isomerase in 1957. It rearranged the composition of glucose in corn syrup and made it into fructose. It turned a mildly sweet corn syrup into the highly sweet high fructose corn syrup. It began being produced on an industrial scale in the 1970s.

Sugar Prices Rise

In 1977, importing sugar became expensive because of new tariffs and sugar quotas. Those manufacturers who used sugar began searching for a cheap alternative sweetener. Even before this happened, sugar was beginning to lose market share to high fructose corn syrup. The quotas and tariffs only made it more attractive since it was cheaper to produce and transport. To make it, powdery corn starch is processed into glucose, which is then processed into the clear syrup fructose. Corn prices were much lower than sugar prices because of government subsidies and overproduction.

Good Timing for Corn Growers

This happened at a time when corn growers were beginning to see competition in the area of margarine and shortening. Typically made from corn oil, improvements in partial hydrogenation allowed for better tasting margarines and shortenings to be made from soybeans. With the increase in demand for corn to make high fructose corn syrup, the loss in production for margarine and shortening was negated.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Gains Acceptance

High fructose corn syrup took a big jump in general acceptance in 1984 when soft drink makers began using it in Coca-Cola and Pepsi, while foreign formulations still used sugar. Production grew from about 3 million short tons in 1980 to about 8 million short tons in 1995.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Today

Nowadays, you can find high fructose corn syrup in ketchup, canned vegetables and jams. In 2005, Americans consumed a per-person average of 28.4 kg of high fructose corn syrup each year. It is now consumed in greater quantities than regular sugar. Some critics say that because high fructose corn syrup is a man-made substance that isn't entirely understood, it is causing the obesity problem in the United States. There are also worries that life-threatening results in animal tests could do the same thing to people.

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