Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Really So Bad?

high-fructose corn syrup
Turn on the TV and there's an ad promoting it, or a different ad promoting its absence. In a grocery store, choose your Raisin Bran with - or proudly without - it. But what exactly is high-fructose corn syrup?

"It's corn starch that has been treated to turn it into sugar," said New York University Professor Marion Nestle. "It is sugar. It's just sugar."

But a lot of people aren't buying that, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller. Just last month, San Francisco parents forced high-fructose corn syrup out of the chocolate milk in the school system. Why?

"People feel like they don't know where their food is coming from anymore," said Dana Woldow, the co-chair of the student nutrition committee. "They don't understand how its produced and I think they have a natural suspicion of anything in their food system that they feel is not natural."

And the name sounds like a chemical, parents say. This backlash is not just a fad according to consumer experts.

"Consumers really want foods and ingredients that sound like they came out of their refrigerators or kitchen cupboards and not a science lab," said Krista Faron.

So companies are busy removing high-fructose corn syrup from some products, citing reasons like "consumer trends."

"In the food industry, the consumer is king," Faron said. "When the consumer is very vocal about demanding changes, food manufacturers listen."

@katiecouric: High-Fructose Corn Syrup
@katiecouric: Americans and Food

But in this case is it necessary? Chemically speaking, high-fructose corn syrup is just sugar with an image problem. It starts as corn starch, and enzymes are used to convert it into glucose and fructose. Various chemicals extract table sugar from sugar beets and sugar cane. It's also made up of glucose and fructose in virtually the same proportions.

High-fructose corn syrup started replacing sugar around 1980 mainly because it's cheaper. It's almost half the price of sugar, partially because the United States, the world's largest grower of corn, subsidizes farmers who grow it, and that lowers its price. The United States also restricts the import of sugar, which hikes its price. High-fructose corn syrup also prolongs the shelf life and gives a moist and chewy consistency, while sugar is better for crispness.

The food police - the ones who told us Chinese food and theatre popcorn were bad - would also be yelling about high-fructose corn syrup. But instead, they say the controversy is all hype.

"The evilness of high-fructose corn syrup has become an urban myth," said Michael Jacobson with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Jacobson blames the high-fructose corn syrup controversy on a 2004 study that seemed to link soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup to the obesity epidemic.

"They didn't have one shred of evidence to back up their theory," Jacobson said. "And they eventually recanted and they realized that HFCS and sugar are essentially the same. But they couldn't put the genie back into the bottle."

Overall, we still consume more sugar than high-fructose corn syrup. Experts say we should be the most concerned about something the two sugars share.

"It's fructose that we're worried about," Nestle said.

That's because it's the fructose in any sugar that goes directly to the liver, where it gets converted into fat, potentially leading to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

"There's too much of it in our diet so we ought to be eating less of sugars generally," Nestle said.

But there is a question whether our bodies metabolize high-fructose corn syrup differently than table sugar. Scientists at UC Davis are conducting a long-term study to answer that. Results are expected by the end of this summer. Until then, call it high-fructose corn syrup or call it sugar, but don't call either one a healthy choice.

  • Michelle Miller
    Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.