Lentis/High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener used as a substitute for sugar in food products.

Corn syrup on a black surface.
High fructose corn syrup tanker


This chapter will explore the social interface of technology with respect to High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in the United States. It will address the rise of HFCS and how it has become ingrained in the food system. In particular, we will show how HFCS is a socially-created substance, that is, a substance that exists due to a certain combination of social factors. We will also investigate social groups that play an important role in this construction, and the tactics they use to further their agendas.

High-Fructose Corn SyrupEdit

High-Fructose Corn Syrup is a food sweetener that functions as a low-cost alternative to table sugar. HFCS is found in many foods including breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. [1] In 2004, HFCS accounted for over 40 percent of the caloric sweeteners added to food and beverages. [1] HFCS is compositionally comparable to table sugar with a fructose glucose ratio of 55/45 (sugar has a 50/50 ratio) [2] [3]. However, there have been studies investigating potential differences in the chemical processes the human body uses to break down HFCS [2].

Corn Field in Ohio.

Origins of High-Fructose Corn SyrupEdit

In the early 1970's, due to high sugar and food prices, Earl Butz altered food policy that had been in place since the New Deal. In particular, Butz installed a system of direct payments to farmers, which removed the price floor under grain, encouraging farmers to sell corn at any price. This policy promoted the expansion of large commercial farms which led to the mass production of commodity corn[4]. Hence, from "fencerow to fencerow"[5] was coined as Earl Butz's policy toward agriculture business.

While subsidies made corn cheaper to produce, Japanese scientist Y. Takasaki created an efficient way to produce fructose from glucose using enzymes. This process migrated to the U.S. and, shortly thereafter, HFCS became the primary sweetener of the food industry at half the price of conventional table sugar. Today, HFCS is a key component of the industrial food system, which provides the majority of food to consumers in the United States today.

Factors that Affect the Social Construction of High-Fructose Corn SyrupEdit

HFCS can be perceived as something that is good or bad for society. In this section, we will discuss how certain concepts can portray HFCS in a positive or negative light.

Connections to HealthEdit

Although current research has not been able to explicitly tie HFCS to specific health problems [6] , the mere connections of HFCS to health complications may cause some consumers to avoid HFCS. Two health problems commonly associated with HFCS are obesity and diabetes. Obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. Many scientists and nutritionists attribute more people becoming obese to the unique characteristics of HFCS[7]. Also the expansion of HFCS has coincided with the onset of the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics in the United States. [8]

Natural vs. Non-NaturalEdit

Seeking to clarify the legal definition of “natural” for food products, various groups have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration [9] [10], however, the issue remains unresolved. As there is no “true” definition, various social groups have worked to shape public perceptions. If opponents can cast HFCS as something contrived or scientifically engineered, it may help foster negative sentiments. Conversely, if supporters can make HFCS seem more natural, it may help improve its public perception. To address this, the Corn Refiners Association proposed changing the name of HFCS to "corn sugar". Corn sugar sounds like something natural or sweet, two things which have positive connotations to the American public. In contrast, certain opponents of HFCS offered their own proposed name changes, some of which were "corn glucose and fructose syrup", "glucose-fructose corn sweetener", or "enzymatically altered corn glucose" [11]. Clearly, these proposed name changes have drastically different connotations.

Attempting to Control Public Perceptions of HFCSEdit


Supporters of HFCS attempt to equate HFCS to table sugar, as its caloric value and composition are nearly identical. Moreover, supporters argue that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that HFCS is uniquely responsible for many of the surrounding health concerns such as obesity and diabetes[3]. The main supporter of HFCS is the Corn Refiners Association.

Corn Refiners AssociationEdit

The Corn Refiners Association (CRA), based in Washington, D.C., represents 7 large agricultural processing companies, including Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. In 2008, based on survey results they concluded that “myths associated with high fructose corn syrup have led many consumers to believe it is different from table sugar” [3]. The CRA felt that this sentiment, if left unchecked, would spread to more consumers, possibly leading to decreased consumption, and therefore decreased sales. In response they launched a multimedia advertising campaign titled: “Changing the Conversation about HFCS.” One aspect of the campaign included television commercials (see below).

The other main effort of the campaign was the creation of SweetSurprise.com, where the CRA suggests consumers visit to “get the facts” about HFCS. On the website the CRA presents evidence given by MDs, the American Medical Association, the FDA, and other experts. The CRA uses these expert opinions to help legitimize their claim that HFCS is equivalent to sugar. The Sweet Surprise website also devotes a section to dispelling key “myths” such as: HFCS is to blame for obesity and causes diabetes. The responses are presented qualitatively, and in simple terms. This approach makes sense given the target audience is a typical American consumer. Readers are not forced to interpret numbers or studies, rather the CRA’s positions are presented in a conversational style.

Propaganda supporting HFCSEdit

The following links are three commercials that the Corn Refiners Association released as part of their "Changing the Conversation about HFCS" campaign.

Commercial: Couple
Commercial: Brothers
Commercial: Mothers

The actors chosen for the commercials reflect the key social groups targeted by the CRA. All three commercials have the same simple message: HFCS is equivalent to sugar and fine in moderation. The CRA targeted mothers because they typically buy the household’s groceries and have health concerns for their children. Young adults are a key group because they are beginning to establish buying patterns that they will carry forward. Finally, teenagers are a relevant group because the CRA is attempting to positively shape the attitudes of the next generation of consumers.


Opponents of HFCS have increased in number, especially over the last decade. This growth coincides with the expanding organic and sustainable food movements. There are now popular facebook groups, and some lawmakers want HFCS banned. A website that counters the CRA's "Sweet Surprise" campaign also exists. A few of the important individuals and groups that oppose the prevalence of HFCS in our food system are Michael Pollan, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, and small farmers.

Michael PollanEdit

Michael Pollan is an outspoken critic of HFCS. He is a professor of science journalism at UC-Berkeley, but is well-known for his ideas regarding food and diet. Pollan has written numerous books on these subjects, including "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma". In addition, Pollan co-narrated the film "Food, Inc.". Among other things he reveals in his works, Pollan exposes how most industrially produced meals contain large quantities of corn derivatives. This has obvious implications since the majority of Americans eat large amounts of industrially-produced meals. Furthermore, as Pollan is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, he directly addresses HFCS in numerous articles about healthy eating [12] [13] [14]. In these articles, Pollan suggests that though HFCS may not be harmful in and of itself, avoiding HFCS will help individuals avoid eating highly-processed foods, which contain the largest amounts of sugar, fat, and salt.

Curt Ellis and Ian CheneyEdit

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney are the makers of the film documentary King Corn. In "King Corn", Ellis and Cheney become interested in how the majority of their diet is composed of corn. [15] So, they set out to Iowa to plant an acre of corn; their goal is to follow it through the food system and into their bodies. During their journey, Ellis and Cheney discover that corn is the essential building block of our entire food system, as its processed derivatives (e.g. HFCS) are found everywhere. They conclude that the continued overproduction of corn undermines small farmers and ruins our nation's health. With their findings, Ellis and Cheney have raised important questions about how we, as a nation, eat and produce our food.

Small FarmersEdit

Small farmers are big "losers" due to the prevalence of HFCS in our food system because the production of HFCS requires the cheap production of commodity corn. This means that, in conjunction with current legislation, larger farms are created to produce as much corn as possible. Thus, small farmers are pushed out of the way if they choose not to expand. One group that seeks to protect the interests of small farmers in the U.S. is the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA). NICFA's mission is "to promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally grown or home-produced food products". [16] NICFA provides a great way for small farmers to unite against any legislation that threatens to undermine their livelihood.

Propaganda against HFCSEdit

The following links are two commercials made by Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney in response to the Corn Refiners Association's campaign.

Commercial: Tobacco
Commercial: DDT

These commercials attempt to reverse the message set out by the Corn Refiners Association by connecting HFCS to items that the public would normally perceive as dangerous or unhealthy. Thus, even though these commercials do not address the technical components of HFCS, they are effective in portraying HFCS negatively because they play on the negative social perceptions of tobacco and DDT. This is a strong example of how adjusting purely social aspects of a technology can have very real technical implications.

Generalizable Lessons Derived from Social Interface of High-Fructose Corn SyrupEdit

Even though, by most technical accounts, HFCS is equivalent to table sugar, when HFCS is introduced to the social interface of technology, differing social perceptions can dominate its technical realities. This lesson has important implications. Specifically, adjusting a purely social knob associated with a technology, such as changing its name, can have an enormous impact on the technology's acceptance into society. Put another way, being able to control or affect the social perceptions of a technology can be just as important, if not more so, than the actual technical specifics of the technology.

Further Research to Improve this ChapterEdit

In the future, people who are interested in improving this chapter should consider comparing HFCS consumption in the United States to consumption in other countries or regions (e.g. comparing U.S. consumption of HFCS to Europe's). Also, it might be of interest to see how "well-developed" countries view HFCS in contrast to how "developing countries" view HFCS. Finally, it would be interesting to assess the role wealth plays in the consumption of HFCS.


  1. a b "Wallinga, D., Sorensen, J., Mottl, P., & Yablon, B. (2009). Not So Sweet: Missing Mercury and High Fructose Corn Syrup. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.". http://www.globe-expert.eu/quixplorer/filestorage/Interfocus/5-Climat_Environnement/58-Agriculture/58-SRCNL-IATP/200901/Jan._26_2009_Not_so_Sweet_Missing_Mercury_and_High_Fructose_Corn_Syrup_report_by_By_IATPDavid_Wallinga_M.D._Janelle_Sorensen_Pooja_Mottl_Brian_Yablon_M.D..pdf. 
  2. a b "Elliott, S.S., Keim, N.L., Stern, J.S., Teff, K., & Havel, P.J. (2002). Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 76(5), 11-22.". http://www.ajcn.org/content/76/5/911.full. 
  3. a b c "Corn Refiners Association. Sweet Surprise: The Facts About High Fructose Corn Syrup". http://www.sweetsurprise.com/. 
  4. "Imhoff, Daniel. (2007) Foodfight, The Citizen's Guide To A Food And Farm Bill. Watershed Media". http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Imhoff%2C+Daniel.++Foodfight%2C+The+Citizen%27s+Guide+To+A+Food+And+Farm+Bill. 
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  6. "Forshee, R.A., Storey, M.L., Allison, D.B., Glinsmann, W.H., Hein, G.L., Lineback, D.R., Miller, S.A., Nicklas, T.A., Weaver, G.A., & White, J.S.(2007). A Critical Examination of the Evidence Relating High Fructose Corn Syrup and Weight Gain. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 47(6), 561 — 582.". http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10408390600846457. 
  7. "Parks EJ, Skokan LE, Timlin MT, Dingfelder CS. (2008). Dietary sugars stimulate fatty acid synthesis in adults.". http://www.ajcn.org/content/76/5/911.full. 
  8. "Pollan, M. (2002). "When a Crop Becomes King". The New York Times.". http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/when-a-crop-becomes-king/. 
  9. "Food and Drug Administration. 2007 Chronological List of Petitions and Advisory Opinions". http://www.fda.gov/regulatoryinformation/dockets/ucm090519.htm. 
  10. "Food and Drug Administration. 2006 Chronological List of Petitions and Advisory Opinions". http://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/Dockets/ucm090522.htm. 
  11. "Parker-Pope, T. (2010). "Help Rename High-Fructose Corn Syrup". New York Times.". http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/help-rename-high-fructose-corn-syrup/. 
  12. "Pollan, M. (2006). "Six Rules for Eating Wisely". TIME.". http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/six-rules-for-eating-wisely/. 
  13. "Pollan, M. (2002). "When a Crop Becomes King". New York Times.". http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/when-a-crop-becomes-king/. 
  14. "Pollan, M. "We are what we eat". Center for EcoLiteracy.". http://www.ecoliteracy.org/essays/we-are-what-we-eat. 
  15. "Bellows, S. (2008). "The Hair Detective". The University of Virginia Magazine.". http://uvamagazine.org/features/article/the_hair_detective/. 
  16. "National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association. 2010. http://www.nicfa.com.". http://www.nicfa.com/.