What is it about High Fructose Corn Syrup that makes it different from other sugars, like common table sugar? Obviously, the sugars come from two different plants corn and sugar cane/sugar beets. But the key factor and the one that causes the most discussion is that the sugars produced from corn are products of a multi-stage enzymatic process that breaks down corn starch into simple sugars. For sugar cane, and sugar beets, the simple sugar (sucrose) is already present, so it is a matter of extracting or refining the plant’s pulp to a point of relative purity. Many people deem the process to make HFCS be “unnatural”, but on a basic chemistry, level is it any worse than refined cane sugar? Does it really affect the flavour of beverages significantly?
There are a lot of questions to answer about high fructose corn syrup, but I’ll focus on the science behind it and draw some personal conclusions. Take them or leave them, they are what they are.
The first thing we should discuss is the difference between HFCS and cane (beet) sugar. In the case of cane sugar, the primary sugar is sucrose, which is actually two sugars (disaccharide) bound together (glucose and fructose). In corn, the sugar is found in starch, in the form of long chains of glucose molecules. Basically, when you digest starch your body will break it down into glucose molecules to feed your cells, much in the same way the HFCS process begins, but there are additional step to make HFCS. These steps basically take a glucose molecule and convert it into a fructose molecule. There isn’t anything diabolical about this chemical step, and the molecules still contain the same number of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms, just rearranged differently.
The reason for the glucose to fructose conversion is to increase sweetness. Glucose is only about 0.8 as sweet as sucrose, but fructose is 1.8x sweeter than sucrose. So this means you can blend glucose and fructose to create a specific sweetness level. The beverage industry seems to aim for 1.2 on the sweetness scale and this relates to the sweetness of inverted sucrose. The term “inverted” is used when sucrose is broken down into fructose and glucose, creating a sweeter product than what was the original starting point. Inversion happens when sucrose is exposed to an acidic environment, and since most soda pop has phosphoric acid as an ingredient, the sucrose undergoes partial inversion resulting in a sweeter drink.
When we look at the final end products, cane sugar and HFCS are basically the same. Sucrose breaks down to a 50/50 ratio of fructose and glucose, and HCFS is a 55/45 ratio of fructose and glucose. The small amount of extra fructose doesn’t represent a major problem since many natural products, like fruit and honey, are high in fructose.
The two last point I should hit upon are that the “high fructose” is only a reference to the fact that normal corn syrup is almost completely glucose. So, 55% fructose is high compared to 0%. It is not significantly higher in fructose than cane sugar though. And, when the body uses these sugars as an energy source, glucose can be used as is by any cell in the body. Fructose, on the other hand, must be converted to glucose, in the liver, before it can be used by cells.
As far as taste goes, there is a difference, but how significant is dependent on the individual. The placebo effect should be noted, because if people think there is a difference, then there will be a difference. Depending on how adverse you are to things will depend on how much of a flavour difference you will notice. For me, the flavour difference is noticeable, but not so much so that it makes me change my purchasing habits.
Vodkaphiles are notorious placebo effect sufferers. The label dictates the flavour, not the content inside the bottle. Same goes for medicine if a pill says it will cure you, even though it may just be sugar, a portion of the population will be cured regardless. The mind is a powerful thing.
After looking at all the information on the sugar cane vs high fructose cane syrup debate, I’ve decided that there are no health issues associated with the “normal” consumption of HFCS. The health issues only come into play when there is an over consumption of any sugar, not just HFCS. I’m more likely to die from a million other environmental factors than I am from normal consumption of fructose and glucose. Normal being less than you think. Drinking a six pack of Coke a day, whether it is HFCS or cane sugar based is just a bad idea.
As for taste, there is a difference, but not so significant that I’d opt only to drink sucrose based drinks. The fact is that even if the sweetener in a cola was sucrose, by the time you open the bottle a good portion of that sucrose has turned into glucose and fructose anyway.
There are a lot of things in the world that need attention and High Fructose Corn Syrup shouldn’t rate as high as it does. If you are aiming for absolute flavour in your drinks, then use whichever sugar meets your needs. When I make simple syrup, I still put a small amount of baking soda into the liquid to try to avoid inversion.
Writer, author of Fix the Pumps, chemist, beekeper and general do-er-of-things, Darcy can generally be found looking for new and interesting things to do, usually over a cocktail. Currently working on more soda fountain history.
Last modified: November 11, 2018