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What Is HFCS and Why Is It In OTC Medicine?

Dr. Joel Warsh Profile Photo

Written by Dr. Joel Warsh on June 22, 2021

You have likely heard about high fructose corn syrup before, and have maybe even recognized it on the ingredient list of many of your favorite products.

Still, many people do not know exactly what high fructose corn syrup is, how it is made, or what the potential health concerns are.

High fructose corn syrup is used in a multitude of food and beverage products, including over-the-counter medicines, making it somewhat hard to avoid. Building a better understanding of HFCS and why it is used so often can help you make more informed decisions, so let’s take a closer look at the basics.

What Is High Fructose Corn Syrup? How Is It Made?

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a corn starch derivative, meaning that it is essentially made from corn starch.

Starch is a chain of glucose molecules that have been joined together, and glucose is a simple sugar. When this chain of molecules is broken into individual glucose molecules, corn syrup is the resulting product, and corn syrup is almost 100% glucose.

HFCS is an alternative to sucrose, also known as common table sugar.

How Does Corn Syrup Become High Fructose Corn Syrup?

To turn this corn syrup into high fructose corn syrup, enzymes are added which turn some of the glucose molecules into fructose. Fructose is also sometimes referred to as fruit sugar because it is naturally occurring in fruits and berries.

Compared to regular corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup is higher in fructose than glucose, hence the name. That said, different formulations of high fructose corn syrup contain different levels of fructose.

How Much Fructose Is In High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Most often, HFCS contains around either 42% or 55% fructose, referred to as HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 respectively, and the rest of HFCS consists of glucose and water.

HFCS 42 is most commonly used for flavoring in cereals, foods, baked goods, and some beverages and HFCS 55 is primarily used to flavor soft drinks and sodas. Thus, when you spot HFCS in your OTC medicine, it is probably HFCS 42.

Why Is HFCS Included In OTC Medicine?

More often than not, high fructose corn syrup is included in medicine to act as an artificial sweetener and flavor-enhancer, and it may be especially found in products geared towards children so that they have a more child-friendly flavor.

That said, this may raise some red flags since HFCS is generally not considered to be a health benefit. You may hesitate to give your child medicines that are full of HFCS, and this is reasonable.

If you want to start avoiding HFCS as much as possible, there are alternative medicines available that do not contain HFCS or other artificial ingredients and sweeteners. These are known as clean medicines, and they generally contain the necessary active ingredients without the accompanying artificial ingredients that we tend to find in many commercially available products.

Clean medicine products are aimed at giving you the same treatment and relief you receive from conventional products, but without introducing those potential health concerns posed by artificial ingredients and HFCS.

It is important to do a risk assessment for yourself and your loved ones in order to make your own decision pertaining to the kinds of products you choose to use, and if the risk of medicines containing HFCS seems to be quite high, it might be a good idea to reconsider.

In any event, your doctor will be able to give you the best advice when it comes to the safety of certain medicines. They will be able to answer any questions you may have about certain ingredients and can steer you in the right direction if you decide you want to try out different products but are not sure where to start.

How Does HFCS Differ From Regular Sucrose?

Sucrose, which is regular sugar, is made by crystallizing sugar cane or beet juice, and the end result is glucose and fructose which have been joined together to form a single molecule that contains one glucose and one fructose molecule with an exact one to one ratio.

That said, the make-up of sucrose may sound similar to the make-up of HFCS, but they are not the same. HFCS contains water, whereas sucrose does not, and there is no chemical bond that joins fructose and glucose in HFCS, but there is a chemical bond in sucrose.

When you consume sucrose, your stomach acid and the enzymes in your gut work quickly to break down the chemical bond that joins glucose and fructose, but this does not happen when you ingest HFCS since there is no bond in this case.

Is Fructose Bad For You?

There is much controversy surrounding the consumption of fructose, especially when it comes to proper nutrition.

Concerns about fructose stem from a correlation between increased average consumption of fructose by Americans including weight gain, high blood sugar, and an accumulation of liver fat.

Whereas virtually all of the cells in your bodywork to break down glucose and use it for energy, only the cells of your liver break down fructose, and when these cells do break down fructose, the end products include triglycerides, uric acids, and free radicals.

Because of this, the safety of fructose is somewhat debated. Over time, triglycerides can build up in the liver and ultimately damage liver function, and when triglycerides get released into the bloodstream they can contribute to plaque in your arteries. Free radicals, too, come with a host of potential risks, including damage to cell structures, enzymes, and maybe even genes.

Overconsumption of high fructose corn syrup or added sugars may raise health concerns. The Food and Drug Administration suggests that the most common forms of HFCS are 42% or 55%.

Is HFCS Safe? What Are The Potential Health Concerns?

Because HFCS has such a high fructose content, the same risks of fructose intake apply to intake of HFCS.

Fructose essentially goes straight to your liver and has the potential to trigger your body’s production of cholesterol and triglycerides which basically means your body begins producing fat. Fructose consumption could lead to an increase in body weight.

High doses of fructose may also contribute to a leaky gut by causing small holes to appear in the intestinal lining which then allows foreign particles and bacteria from food to enter your bloodstream. It can also lead to health problems later down the line.

High fructose corn syrup may also have the potential to increase your appetite, thus promoting obesity more so than regular table sugar, according to one study.

Generally, fructose will not do too much harm if you limit your intake, but ingesting high amounts of fructose is when the trouble really starts.

Is It Okay To Eat Fruit If High Fructose Is Bad?

Even though fructose or corn sugar is controversial in terms of health concerns, it is still perfectly safe and actually encouraged to eat plenty of fruit. This is because the fructose in fruits is naturally occurring, as compared to the processed versions of fructose found in products like HFCS.

Plus, fruits are full of other important nutrients and vitamins like fiber and vitamin C, and unless you eat incredibly large amounts of fruit, the fructose in different fruits likely will not cause any problems for you.

It is most of all important to focus on consuming whole, nutritious foods as opposed to consuming plenty of processed foods packed full of HFCS, and when medicines are available that are HFCS-free, it is not a bad idea to opt for those rather than the more conventional products.

If you are having trouble deciding whether HFCS is putting you and your loved ones at risk, you should consult your doctor to get a professional opinion about whether or not certain diet and lifestyle changes may be necessary or beneficial.

The Bottom Line

These days, high fructose corn syrup can be found in a wide variety of foods with added sugar and refined carbs, beverages, condiments, and pharmaceuticals, and it is basically made by breaking the chain of glucose molecules in corn starch and then adding enzymes that alter some of the glucose molecules, turning them into fructose. It is considered to be high in carbohydrates.

Though high fructose corn syrup might be safe when consumption is limited, there are some health concerns associated with HFCS and fructose as a whole, and there is a correlation between high consumption of HFCS and an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

More research is needed in order to prove causation, but doctors recommend avoiding HFCS whenever possible, and one way to do this is to take care when reading the ingredient labels on the OTC medicines you purchase.

Opting for cleaner alternatives to conventional OTC medicines is an easy and fast way to start reducing the amount of HFCS you and your loved ones consume in efforts to reduce negative health effects.