Q: I have a wild hair to make my own marshmallows. Do not ask why. But I pulled out an ancient bottle of Karo from my cupboard, and realized I would need another bottle. Bought a new bottle — which proudly proclaims "0g High Fructose Corn Syrup." I check the old bottle, and sure enough its ingredients are corn syrup, followed by high fructose corn syrup. What is the difference? Is high fructose cheaper, and so is corn syrup prices rising? Is the new, high fructose-free formulation any healthier?
—Tracey Thomas, San Francisco
Corn syrup is " a thick, sweet syrup created by processing cornstarch with acids or enzymes," according to "The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion." High-fructose corn syrup is syrup that undergoes an additional process to convert "some of the glucose sugars into fructose, which is much sweeter and therefore gives the (syrup) a higher sweetening power," writes Harold McGee in "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen."
Sweeter just has to be neater, yes? No, many health and diet experts warn. While use of high-fructose corn syrup in a variety of food products is permitted by the federal government, claims that it's bad for you have been piling up for years.
The question of whether high-fructose corn syrup is harmful is addressed on the eponymous Web site of the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic by Jennifer K. Nelson, director of clinical nutrition/dietetic and a registered dietitian. The answer is still undecided.
"Although high-fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), concerns have been raised because of how high-fructose corn syrup is processed," she writes. "Some believe that your body reacts differently to high-fructose corn syrup than it does to other types of sugar. But research about high-fructose corn syrup is evolving."
She adds: "Some research studies have linked consumption of large amounts of any type of added sugar — not just high-fructose corn syrup — to such health problems as weight gain, dental cavities, poor nutrition, and increased triglyceride levels, which can boost your heart attack risk. But there is insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is less healthy than are other types of added sweeteners."
Still, all the bad press over high-fructose corn syrup has many consumers trying to avoid it, hence that proud zero grams claim on the syrup bottle. You might suppose zero amounts of high-fructose corn syrup means a healthier product, but Nelson tells me one has to think of all added sugar in the diet.
"We are still creatures of sugar, all forms of sugar,'' she says. "We have to come back to common sense."
And, what common sense might mean is homemade marshmallows only a couple of times a year, not more often. (Sorry!)
I also think consumers really need to read product labels — not just the splashy claims on the front but the fine print on the back. Read the list of ingredients. Weigh the nutritional information and consider if the data is based on a realistic serving size. Think, think, think before you buy. Ask questions; do your research, decide what you're comfortable with — or not.