For decades, Americans have sipped on fountain sodas, wondering, at least occasionally but likely much more often, what exactly that thing that makes the drink so sweet is. It's called high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that much we have known. And it could be bad for us in a way that sugar is not. But what exactly is it, where does it come from, and how much does it truly differ from the ingredient it so often replaces in processed foods?
In response to the ubiquity of these very questions, the American Chemical Society put together a short video (above) that walks anyone watching through a simple, scientific explanation of the difference between HFCS and sugar.
The answer, in short, is that HFCS is indeed the result of a bit of science—it's the product of a process where corn is broken down into corn starch, which is in turn broken down into corn syrup, and then finally sweetened by tweaking the proportion of glucose and fructose. The result is actually something that in its composition is very similar to sugar. Both are essentially made up of fructose and glucose, although the proportion of each can vary in HFCS and therefore affect the relative sweetness of it.
"High fructose corn syrup comes in different concentrations for different products, but it's remarkably similar to sugar," the video explains. "The scientific consensus is that there's almost no nutritional difference between the two."
That last point, though it might be true of the scientific community, is hardly the sentiment among consumers, who have proved increasingly dubious of the cheaper, lab-crafted version of sugar.
Although we know that the makeup of sugar and HFCS is remarkably similar, we're still unclear on the long-term effects of consuming the latter. While studies have linked HFCS consumption to obesity and diabetes, it's not apparent whether the tie is to the actual sweetener or the types of foods it is found in. To be fair, that means that it's very possible that there are not adverse consequences outside of those already seen in sugar. Unfortunately, it might be decade before we have any clarity on that front, which is why, given the science, our best approach might simply be to treat it much as we do regular sugar, and eat as little of it as possible.