Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


Why I don’t eat High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

Filed under: — adam @ 10:11 am

The following is a catalog of my somewhat unscientific objections to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), across a number of different axes:

Health / Chemical

It’s not “Just like sugar”

Proponents of HFCS claim that it’s “just like sugar”, but that’s not strictly true. Even the form of HFCS that’s closest in chemical formulation to sucrose is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, which is a liquid at room temperature. Fructose metabolism behaves differently in the absence of glucose, and in practice that ratio seems like enough to tip the scales in that direction.

HFCS is a mixture

HFCS is a mixture, not a compound. In the case of sucrose, it’s a very weak bond between the fructose and the glucose, but there is a bond there that can be used to regulate the rate at which it’s metabolized (cleavage of the disaccharide into glucose and fructose happens in the small intestine). When you eat HFCS, you just dump a bunch of fructose and glucose on your metabolism all at once, to be absorbed as quickly as possible. I haven’t seen any research examining whether this is a problem or not, but it seems like it would be.

Research shows that it can be unhealthy

There is an increasing body of research pointing to excess fructose or HFCS specifically as being responsible for weight gain, raising bad cholesterol levels (see the Personal Experience section at the end) and causing cancers to grow faster.

Other thoughts on Fructose

I don’t know of any research examining whether the fructose in fruit or agave syrup has similar effects. My guess would be that the fructose in fruit is buffered by everything else in the fruit (see the coda on nutritionism at the end) and that agave syrup is probably not great for you either, but I have no evidence to support either of those assertions.



I don’t like the way HFCS tastes – I find that foods sweetened with it have a somewhat sickly flavor, and a lingering unpleasant aftertaste.

HFCS is a marker for cheap ingredients.

Companies that put HFCS in their food do so because it’s cheaper than sugar, not because it’s better than sugar. A few cents extra per loaf of bread makes a huge difference when you’re selling a few million loaves, and it makes a lot less difference when you’re buying one loaf. I try to make as much of my food from ingredients I personally choose, but when I have to buy packaged food, I generally want it to be as good as it can be. In my experience, foods that avoid HFCS also tend to use better ingredients and have better overall quality. I’m disgusted by how difficult it is to find food in the supermarket that doesn’t contain it.


HFCS is an industrial byproduct of corn subsidies. This is a very deep subject with a large number of complex interactions, but one thing is pretty clear — the aggregation of incentives for many farmers line up to cause them to grow lots of corn (and soybeans) to the detriment of other products. Monocultures in farming are generally problematic, and I think we should be encouraging more biodiversity instead of less. Vastly simplified, the government makes it financially attractive for a large number of farmers to grow very few varieties of corn with the use of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. This increases our dependence on foreign oil, it weakens the basis of our foodstocks, and it gives us a large number of very cheap byproducts that make their way into everything. Michael Pollan has given this subject far more exploration than I could – I highly recommend reading the chapter on corn in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (or the article on which that chapter was based).

Personal Experience

Sometime over the summer of 2008, I made the personal decision to eradicate as much HFCS as possible from my diet. I would no longer voluntarily buy any processed food containing HFCS, and I would make conscious attempts to avoid it. I had my cholesterol checked in June, before I started this experiment, and again in December. During that time period, with no other lifestyle changes, my Triglyceride count dropped by 39 points and my LDL count dropped by 28 points. I attribute this change entirely to the direct and indirect effects of cutting out HFCS – cutting out HFCS itself, cutting out the other processed ingredients that often go along with it, and decreasing my consumption of processed food overall. In actuality, HFCS itself may be entirely benign (though I see little evidence of that), but I feel that removing it from my diet was an unqualified net good. Unfortunately, it’s been impossible to remove entirely, as most restaurants use it. As a result, I’ve been trying to cook at home more (with a little help), which has also been largely a net good.


(Coda on Nutritionism vs. Nutrition)

Michael Pollan makes a really good point about eating whole foods in In Defense of Food (and the essay on which it was based). The whole essay is worth reading, but this section stood out for me:

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

What’s going on here? We don’t know. It could be the vagaries of human digestion. Maybe the fiber (or some other component) in a carrot protects the antioxidant molecules from destruction by stomach acids early in the digestive process. Or it could be that we isolated the wrong antioxidant. Beta is just one of a whole slew of carotenes found in common vegetables; maybe we focused on the wrong one. Or maybe beta carotene works as an antioxidant only in concert with some other plant chemical or process; under other circumstances, it may behave as a pro-oxidant.

Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.



I think that about covers it. I welcome comments.


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