Corn sugar is the most consumed sugar in the U.S. today. The average person eats about 150 lbs of sugar annually. About half of that, or 6 lbs a month, is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But HFCS is only one of 15 different kinds of corn sugars. Manufacturers use all kinds of corn sugars in processed food products. Should we be concerned? Are you wondering if eating all those prepackaged sweetened foods is bad for your health?
Learn about the Varieties of Corn Sugar and how They are Used
I began to study corn sugar after we discovered my son’s corn intolerance in 2007. I quickly discovered that snacks are loaded with corn sugar. And drinks? Just forget about them. As a matter of fact, I challenge anyone in America to read the ingredient listings on every snack product in their favorite vending machine. It would not surprise me if every item had some association with a corn sugar, however odd or far removed as it may seem. Heck, even the water bottles are more than likely made from a corn byproduct! I digress. I really want to focus my attention on America’s romance with sugar, corn sugar to be specific. Corn sugar is so prevalent in our lives, I think it’s going to shock you. How did we get so addicted to corn sugar? Let’s take a careful look at corn. Corn grows in abundance all over our country. It is highly subsidized, and in most cases, genetically modified.
So what is corn sugar?
Most people think it’s only high fructose corn syrup (hfcs), or corn syrup. I think you’d be surprised to learn that conventional honey, glucose, dextrose, and fructose are all considered a corn sugar too. But that’s only just four of the 15 most common corn-derived sugars in our food. There’s a lot of sugar in corn, so it only makes sense that corn refiners would work to convert it into various kinds of man-made sugars.
Initially I worried about corn sugar in processed products mainly to avoid an allergic reaction in my son. After carefully researching these sweeteners, one thing became obvious to me about corn sugar. It is less than ideal for, well, pretty much everyone. Many argue that the obesity epidemic in America is because of corn sugar. Some experts think removing HFCS from your diet will help you lose weight.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, America’s Sweet Tooth Increased 39% between 1950–59 and 2000 as the use of Corn Sweeteners, mainly High Fructose Corn Syrup, increased eightfold (Agriculture Fact Book 2001–2002, Chapter 2).
I took a look at the long list of sweeteners that contain corn sugar derivatives. I found fifteen. This makes finding appropriate ‘convenience’ foods a pretty futile task. Corn sugar is hidden in nearly all processed foods. Corn sugar is in products you would never think to be sweetened. When we first changed the diet we had a lot of trouble navigating the labels. Thanks to a few good websites like Jenny Connors’ Corn Allergens, we were able to get a good grasp on where corn sugar lurks. These days that list is growing ever longer as more GMO corn gets planted across America and continues to monopolize the sweetener industry.
Common Corn Sugar Varieties in our Food:
I will start with the ‘dex’ sugars, that is, any corn sugar with the syllable ‘dex’ in it. This type of corn sugar is made from modified cornstarch. A ‘dex’ sugar is a twice processed end product. Refiners process cornstarch to produce what is referred to as ‘modified cornstarch’. Some of the chemicals we would otherwise consider harmful to ingest are utilized to create it. Chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium chloride are used. The Corn Refiner’s Association has documents listing the typical levels of chemical residues in their corn sugar products. They claim that the levels are within ‘safe’ amounts for consumers. But it begs the question, at what point does our consumption put us past the level of ‘safety’, especially if we are consuming 39% more of the stuff than we did fifty years ago? Arsenic and lead are even listed as residue ingredients often found in this type of corn sugar. Basically this is the base product for which the ‘dextrin’ sugars are further processed before they are added to our medicine and our food.
I started my corn sugar research with the three most common dextrin sugars in our foods: Crystalline dextrose, dextrose/glucose, and maltodextrin. These were the ones that I initially honed in on when I was purging the cabinets shortly after my son’s allergy test results came in:
- Introduced in 1921, This type of corn sugar is often used in vitamins and intravenous injections. According to John H. Boyles, Jr. M.D., “Our corn-allergic patients are instructed to call us if they are going to have an operation and we get the anesthesiologist to start his induction with plain saline” (Audio-Digest Otorhinolaryngology, Vol. 13, No.15, in the Audio-Digest Foundation’s subscription series of tape-recorded programs.)
- Prior to the advent of HFCS these corn sugars were favored by American manufacturers. Produced by No#2 Yellow Dent Corn, these sweeteners are produced commercially in a two-fold process. Cornstarch is either treated with a fungal enzyme such as amylase or by submersion in a large solution of water and hydrochloric acid. It is then heated under steam pressure in a converter and changes to glucose. The glucose is then purified and dried, forming granules of dextrose. These sugars are used in canned fruit, baked items (because they improve the color and texture), and candy. Fermented dextrose makes lactic acid and this substance is used to make Polylactide (PLA), a polymer that is used to create compostable plastic water bottles, like the Corntainer.
- This type of corn sugar was first produced in the 1950s. Donald Kasarda Ph.D., a research chemist specializing on grain proteins, of the United States Department of Agriculture, found that all maltodextrins in the USA are made from cornstarch. In other parts of the world this sweetener could be made from potato starch or wheat starch. Maltodextrin is produced by cooking down the starch. While cooking, (the hydrolysis of the starch), enzymes and acids break down the starch, resulting in a white powder that contains four calories per gram, and minimal amounts of fiber, fat, and protein. It is often sprayed on instant tea and coffee to keep the granules from sticking together, in instant oatmeal packets, and in soup mixes. It contains traces of Glutamic acid as a manufacturing byproduct.
The next sweetener I investigated was the too familiar corn syrups and the infamous high-fructose corn syrup. Both are found in most processed food products in the U.S. and in nearly all our store bought breads, juices, ice creams, and candies.
CORN SYRUP, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS
- Corn syrup is used in nearly all carbonated beverages, most commercially baked goods, and some canned products, and almost every commercial formula on the market. It is also often used in ice cream because it keeps ice crystals from forming. It is a liquid that is a combination of maltose, glucose, and dextrose. It is one of the cheapest sources of carbohydrate, so manufacturers prefer it. But it is processed using sulfuric acid. It is also largely made from genetically modified corn crops. It is made through the utilization of sulfur dioxide in the chemical process. According to the U.S. government, residual amounts of the chemical are allowed in foods that use corn syrups as an ingredient. Sulfur dioxide is known to cause respiratory problems and is very bad for asthmatics.
HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP (HFCS)
- Introduced to the public in 1967, it became the corn sugar of choice by the mid 8os. Read my article: “Facts about High Fructose Corn Syrup and Refined Sugar for more information about how it’s made and detailed information on the probable link between HFCS and obesity.
I also learned that there were other types of corn sugar commonly utilized in the manufactured food market that were not likely known to be corn derived by the general public:
- This corn sugar is an end product of cornstarch hydrolysis. It is made from ‘fructose rich’ corn syrup and has a higher fructose content than High Fructose Corn Syrup, but with a lower glycemic index. It is used in beverages, baked goods, frozen foods, cereal, dairy products, reduced-calorie foods, canned fruits, toppings and sauces, jams and jellies, caramels and gum, and “healthy” sports drinks. Over consumption has been linked to fatty liver disease.
- Now made almost exclusively from corn, this sugar is a monosaccharide naturally found in root plants and honey. It had once become a common sweetener for diabetics and hypoglycemics because insulin is not needed to metabolize it. This makes it a low glycemic index sugar. However, the American Diabetes Association no longer approves of it because it raises blood lipid levels. Nancy Appleton, a strong contender to the use of fructose says:
“Dr. J. Hallfrisch studied cholesterol and triglyceride levels and found that fructose, unfortunately, caused a general increase in both the total serum cholesterol level and the low-density lipoprotein fraction of cholesterol in most subjects. The triglyceride levels also rose significantly, especially in those persons whose blood sugar levels rise higher than normal when they eat sugar. It was concluded that high levels of dietary fructose can produce undesirable changes in blood lipid levels, which are associated with heart disease” (source: Lick the Sugar Habit,Garden City Park, N.Y. Avery Publishing Group, 1996: pp. 90).
GLUCOSE/ GLUCOSE SYRUP
- A little less sweet than sucrose (table sugar), this corn sugar can often be the listed ingredient of a product when it is really ‘corn syrup’. It is often used as a food for the growth of microorganisms. Although not used in the soft drink industry, it is widely used in malted beverages (beers) as the food substance for yeast. This corn sugar is also often used in commercial “chewy” candy products like caramel.
Then I came across a few surprises that I hadn’t expected. Many of the ‘other’ alternative sweeteners were actually corn-based products as well, or at the very least included a byproduct of corn to increase their production or quality.
CONFECTIONERS SUGAR (POWDER SUGAR)
- In the United States all major brands of commercial powdered sugars are made with corn starch (which is made by carbon dioxide and water), because it keeps the sugar from caking. Powdered sugar can be made without corn by grinding refined sugar in a mixer at high speed until it becomes powdery. Trader Joe’s does carry a Powdered Sugar made without corn starch. They use tapioca starch instead.
- Corn sugar is even a concern when you are shopping for honey. You really have to know your brands and research their bee keeping methods. “With the advent of HFCS, there was no way to prove whether in fact honey was mixed with corn syrup. Adulteration therefore, became extremely profitable. The possibility exists to mix 80% to 90% corn syrup in honey without being detected” (University of Florida IFAS extension). But even more disturbing is the new trend of Bee Keepers in the U.S. feeding High Fructose Corn Syrup to bees, “Many commercial crops—vine crops like watermelon and cantaloupe, for example—don’t yield enough nectar for bees to accumulate stores. When winter or early spring rolls around, the bees are out of food. Normally they’d fall back on honey, but that’s long since been harvested by the beekeeper and shipped to grocery stores and farmers’ markets. So beekeepers cover this shortfall by feeding bees high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. It is the same substance manufacturers add to everything from soda to ketchup. It’s the stuff many nutritionists believe is turning Americans into obese, wheezing, diabetic, cancer-ridden couch manatees” Washington City Paper, “Buzz Kill”, June 14, 2007.
- Human consumption is limited to sugar cane molasses and sugar beet molasses. But it can be the byproduct of corn or wood, too. It is used for baked goods, in ale and rum. Corn sugar molasses in particular is used in animal feed to keep it from dusting off.
Finally, I focused on corn sugar alcohols. They are not easily absorbed by the body, making them useful for manufacturers wanting to produce sweet products with a lower glycemic index.
- It is a corn sugar alcohol whose molecules are chemically altered to have different properties. It provides fewer calories than sugar (about half). Maltitol is a carbohydrate with structures that only resemble sugar and alcohol, so products that use it can be labeled as sugar free. You will find this ingredient mainly in chewing gum, sugar-free chocolates, hard candies, baked items, and ice cream. In higher quantities (more than 10-50 grams ingested daily) this corn sugar alcohol is known to have a laxative effect.
- This corn sugar contains dextrose, a carbohydrate derived from corn. Dextrose is used to dilute the potent sweetener which is 300x more sweet than cane sugar.
- This is the diabetic’s corn sugar of choice. It is found in many foods suited to the diabetic diet. Sorbitol is also found in toothpaste and shaving creams. It can also cause diarrhea if consumed too often. Here is an excerpt from a Citizen Petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Sorbitol is a naturally-occurring hexahydric alcohol that is found in various fruits and plants. Because it is sweet-tasting, non-cariogenic, and less caloric than sugars, sorbitol is produced commercially and commonly used as a sugar substitute in such dietetic food products as sugar-free candies, breakfast syrups, and cake mixes. Such products are popular among diabetics and others who seek to limit their consumption of sugar. Unfortunately, ingestion of sorbitol can cause a range of gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating. At sufficiently high doses, the substance can produce osmotic diarrhea, a property that has been exploited by clinicians to induce catharsis. Children are especially susceptible to sorbitol-related gastrointestinal problems. In fact, at least one outbreak of diarrhea among youngsters has been attributed to consumption of sorbitol-sweetened dietetic candies.”
- Originally derived from the birch tree in Finland, this sweetener is now primarily derived from corn fibers. Xylitol has been used in foods since the 1960’s. Commonly found in diabetic products: toothpastes, candies, cookies, jams and jellies, and most commonly, chewing gum. It is a popular sweetener. “In the U.S., xylitol is approved as a food additive in unlimited quantity for foods with special dietary purposes” according to xylitol.org. The site also boasts that its antibacterial qualities make it a great nasal spray to ward off infection. China is currently the world’s biggest provider of xylitol. (And I don’t trust China after the big melamine in the formula fiasco.) Most folks say that xylitol is safe and good for diabetics, but there are some reports that it can raise your blood pressure. There are no reports that xylitol is dangerous for humans but there are several about how they can be deadly for your pet dog. This is enough to give me pause.
That about sums up the long list of corn sugar that we must avoid at all costs. I have started to look at my son’s corn allergy as a blessing, really. It has forced us to take a long hard look at what we feed our children and inspired us to make more of an effort getting good food on the table rather than prepackaged sweets, frozen products, jarred items, or convenient fast food meals.
Now I only wish the corn would grow a bit less in this country so we folks on the fringe will have a real choice of alternative sweeteners. HFCS does not belong in a juice box anymore than it does in the bee hive. Who knows, this could make for a terrific sequel to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee movie: Barry B. Benson sues the Bee Keepers and the Corn Refiner’s Association for putting billions of bees at risk for heart disease and early death…..