High fructose corn syrup is exactly what it sounds like. It is added to a lot of food products here in the USA, notably soft drinks. It is used so extensively for three reasons:
  1. It's cheap (this is the principal reason)
  2. It's sweeter than plain sugar
  3. In acidic mixtures, such as many soft drinks, sucrose will become hydrolyzed with time; high fructose corn syrup doesn't have that problem
High fructose corn syrup is sometimes known as isoglucose outside the US. From what I understand, it came into widespread use in the late 1960s after the Japanese discovered a more stable way to produce it. The syrup is manufactured from cornstarch by liquefying it and hydrolyzing it with enzymes to produce a glucose syrup. Through another enzyme process, the glucose is converted to fructose, which is sweeter than glucose and thus more useful for the food industry.

Among the other uses for high fructose corn syrup other than a drink sweetener that I know of, it is used in cheaper ice cream instead of (or along with) sugar because it lowers the freezing point less. Also, it is used in jams, candies, canning, and all kinds of other stuff because sucrose (sugar) will eventually crystallize but high fructose corn syrup will not.

I don't like high fructose corn syrup myself, because when there's enough of it, it burns my throat and has a lousy aftertaste. The reason those Torani syrups are so expensive is that they contain pure cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. I use them to make my own soda sometimes, and I think it tastes a lot better. Drinks and candy for young children (à la SqueezeIt) contain such high amounts of weird stuff (including high fructose corn syrup) that they become undrinkable once you get past a certain age.

For the past billion or so years, ever since photosynthesis has become a major driving factor in the earth's biogeochemical cycle, the earth has had an oxidizing atmosphere. Anything placed in that atmosphere will be changed by it. Basalt weathers, wood rots and hydrocarbons combust rapidly. And living things, besides a few prokarya living in the bottom of oxygen-starved marshes, have become accustomed to that. Most living things have adapted to living in an oxygen rich atmosphere, which both assaults their cells and structures, and also enables them to make energy.

All animals live by combining atmospheric molecular oxygen with carbon chains. There are more steps to it than that: some carbon chains are stored as fats, while others are the water soluble sugar. Many animals have quite a bit of metabolic machinery to transform various hydrocarbons into a form that is more easily transported and metabolized. But in short, all animals do is combine carbon chains with oxygen molecules to produce energy, carbon dioxide and water.

All of this is a bit of a run-up before explaining what high fructose corn syrup is. High fructose corn syrup is produced from corn starch, and is a disaccharide, consisting of two smaller sugar molecules. These molecules are glucose and fructose. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, so a smaller amount of high fructose corn syrup can produce more sweetness. And since corn is raised in overwhelming abundance in the United States, producing sweetener from corn starch is more economical than sugar from cane or beets. Fructose, in various forms, is natural to different fruits, in amounts from a trace to a good proportion. Human's natural fuel is glucose, but in whatever long years of evolution we lived in "the wild", we couldn't be picky about what type of energy we were taking in. Fructose would have come to us in a steady stream, although perhaps small. Our bodies had one way or another to process fructose, both to make sugar and to clear it out of our systems. Fructose is, after all, another sugar, and our body has the machinery to deal with sugars more exotic than fructose, such as sorbitol or xylitol.

High fructose corn syrup has become somewhat of a bogeyman in health circles as of late. There is some thought that it can be linked to any number of health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. And there is probably someone out there on the wide internet who has linked it to autism spectrum disorder or restless leg syndrome. I don't know if any of those are true. The human body has a complicated array of metabolic pathways, and they all differ from person to person, and they can change easily based on circumstances. An experiment to see how our body processes food would probably be a poor model with what actually goes on in our cells. But I do know that fructose is a relatively simple molecule, made out of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, the elements that our metabolic machinery has been processing for several billion years. There is nothing particularly odd about fructose. No sulfur bonds, no heterocyclic rings, no cheleated metal atoms. Just the basics.

Which makes me somewhat skeptical of claims that high fructose corn syrup is an insidious and mysterious poison. Especially since most foods high in high fructose corn syrup are not exactly cavalcades of nutrition. A person who spends their weekends eating Little Debbie Nutty Bars on the couch while watching television isn't getting fat because high fructose corn syrup is a mysterious goblin. They are getting fat because of the simple physics of energy taken in as food being greater than energy expended in exercise.

Although, as mentioned, the body's cellular mechanisms are hard to understand completely, the spotlighting of high fructose corn syrup as a mysterious insidious culprit in health problems seems to be overkill, when quite simpler principles of diet and exercise account for fitness in a much more obvious way.

The main health problem with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is that unlike sucrose or glucose, fructose does not trigger an insulin response and thus there is no feeling of satiety ("fullness") when eating products made with HFCS. This means people tend to eat more of something made with HFCS than would have if they had eaten the exact same product made with sugar.

Of course, this same downside applies to naturally occurring sources of fructose, such as fruits, but you would have to eat a large number of apples or grapes to get the same amount of fructose as is found in a candy bar made with HFCS.

The cruel irony is that HFCS is actually significantly more energy intensive to produce than regular sugar. In a rational market, HFCS would either not exist or only be used in specialized circumstances. However, massive corn subsidies in the United States mean that corn is so cheap that HFCS becomes the cheaper alternative than sugar, even though it costs much more energy to produce.

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