How Companies Are Using Deceptive Name Changes To Sneak
High-Fructose Corn Syrup Into Your Food
 

 

Foods bearing promises on their labels such as "contains no high fructose corn syrup" (HFCS) may actually contain an even more potent version of HFCS, due to a change in labeling terminology that took place in late 2014. Even reading the ingredients on the package will not reveal the presence of this hidden HFCS, unless you know what to look for.

For example, Vanilla Chex cereal boasts a "no high fructose corn syrup" claim on the label, yet a glance at the ingredients reveals that it contains an additive labeled simply "fructose".  This is the same ingredient that until recently was known as HFCS-90 – that is, HFCS that contains 90 percent fructose, rather than the typical range of 42 to 55 percent.

 

HFCS hidden in 'natural' foods

To understand this shifty name change, it's important to start with some basic chemistry. Standard table sugar is known chemically as sucrose. It is a disaccharide, meaning it contains two chemically bonded sugar molecules (monsaccharides). Sucrose contains a single glucose molecule and a single fructose molecule. Thus, it is always exactly 50 percent fructose. Sucrose is the most common form of sugar in plant foods (and also honey); including fruits, sugar cane and maple syrup.

HFCS, in contrast, is manufactured from corn using various chemical additives. The final product consists of free monosaccharides of glucose and fructose. Although the fructose content of HFCS is officially 55 percent (thus, "high fructose"), in reality the content may vary. Because the fructose in HFCS is unbound, it enters the bloodstream much more quickly and can have different effects than when consumed in the form of sucrose.

The product formerly known as HFCS-90 is particularly common in foods advertised as "natural" or "light," according to the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), because "very little is needed to provide sweetness."

"Syrups with 90% fructose will not state high fructose corn syrup on the label anymore, they will instead state 'fructose' or 'fructose syrup.

 

Why is HFCS-90 suddenly allowed?

The deceptive name change actually seems to have arisen from an effort to improve labeling of HFCS. In 2010, researcher Dr. Michael Goran of the University of Southern California and the Childhood Obesity Research Center, discovered that the HFCS used in Coke, Pepsi and Sprite samples actually contained fructose levels as high as 65 percent, even though the FDA only allows a maximum of 55 percent.

Another study found a similar result; with popular beverages containing HFCS with fructose levels as high as 65 percent. The findings suggest that prior studies, which have accepted the 55 percent number, have dramatically underestimated the fructose consumption of the U.S. population, the researchers said.

The higher-than-expected fructose content of HFCS also undercuts industry efforts to downplay research demonstrating the harms of consuming a high-fructose diet. The industry typically claims that the "extra 5 percent" fructose content of HFCS is not enough to make a nutritional difference.

Following the studies showing fluctuations in fructose content, the consumer watchdog group Citizens for Health petitioned the FDA to make food producers actually specify the fructose content of the HFCS used in their products. The petition also asked the agency to enforce its rules about HFCS, considering any HFCS with fructose content higher than 55 percent "adulterated," and therefore prohibited in interstate commerce.

On the defensive, J. Patrick Mohan, interim president of the CRA, claimed that the FDA had approved the use of HFCS-90 when it classified HFCS as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS). But this FDA decision actually reads: "HFCS-90 is not included in this rulemaking because the agency does not have adequate information to assess the safety of residual levels of the processing materials in the final product."

"Additional data on the effects of fructose consumption that is not balanced with glucose consumption would be needed to ensure that this product is safe," it continues.

Given this 1996 document, it's unclear why the FDA has now chosen to allow HFCS-90, albeit under another name.

David Gutierrez