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Sweetness Versus Science


Corn in the USA

The Science Behind America's Favorite Sweetener

The Debate

The Princeton Study

America's Return to Sugar


References & Links

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Corn in the USA

    The history of high-fructose corn syrup goes back to the history of the plant it is derived from, corn.  Corn entered the human diet almost 9,000 years ago when the Mayans, in what is now Mexico, began eating it.  Since then, due to its unique ability to produce so many calories from sunlight, water, and nutrients in soil, corn has gained a large place in our diets.  For more on corn’s amazing journey into America’s supermarkets read Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

    The process of refining corn into other products began in 1811 with a Russian chemist, G. S. C. Kirchoff.  He discovered that by heating potato starch with sulfuric acid, a process called acid hydrolysis, a sweet, viscous syrup would be produced (Ettlinger, 59-60).  This process for producing a sweetener lay relatively unnoticed until cane sugar shortages during World War I and World War II pushed Americans to find other sweeteners (Ettlinger, 60).  Corn became the solution to the lack of available sugar because it was and still is a less expensive and readily available American product.

    High-fructose corn syrup was first mass-produced at a plant in Clinton, Iowa in 1967 (Ettlinger, 56).  Today corn processing plants in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and several other states use enzymes and hydrochloric acid to break corn down into HFCS and many other products that become auto fuel, plastic fibers, pharmaceuticals, and industrial chemicals.  The process is slightly more complicated than it was in 1811, but the corn is processed to break down long chains of starch molecules into the sweetener that has become so controversial, high-fructose corn syrup.

    The story of the rise and fall of HFCS and sugar consumption begins with the US sugar market.  In November 1974 world sugar prices peaked at a record 57 cents per pound, but by 1977 they had fallen to only 8.1 cents per pound.  In an effort to protect the US sugar growers, a series of government Farm Bills propped up the American sugar producers and raised the prices of foreign sugar (Alvarez & Polopolus, 2).  With the artificially high price of American sugar, food manufacturers sought other sweetener options.  “On November 6, 1984, both Coca Cola and Pepsi announced plans to stop using sugar in soft drinks, replacing it with high-fructose corn syrup,” (Bovard).  This move, and many others like it by other corporations, changed Americans’ consumption patterns overnight.  Below is a link to a graph from the Corn Refiners’ Association using data from the US Department of Agriculture.

    Sugar consumption steadily declined while HFCS steadily increased from the early 1980s to the late 1990s.  In 2003 consumption of HFCS finally drew even with sugar. However, since then the trend has reversed and sugar is again above HFCS.


Corn on the Cob

Figure 1: Corn on the Cob, photo by Akash k

Corn Sweetener Train Car

Figure 2: Corn Sweeteners Train Car, photo by boeke

Last updated:  5/7/2010


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