It was during my stint as a graduate student at the University of Georgia that I attended my first convention of the American Beekeeping Federation . I participated at most of its national meetings during my active career. I got many ideas from those conventions, but that first one sticks in my mind. At one of the booths in the commercial exhibition area, I saw a fountain running a clear liquid. The person manning the display proudly informed me this was a brand new bee food on the market. It was the first time I was to hear the words High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Little did I know that I was seeing and participating in a revolution in-the-making.
Over the next few years, HFCS invaded commercial beekeeping and more than a few sideliners and hobbyist operations in the bargain. The material had a lot to recommend it. It was inexpensive to purchase (cheaper than sugar), especially in large quantities. Most important, though, it came in liquid form. This threatened (joyously so for anyone who had fed many a colony of bees like myself) to end one of beekeeping’s most time-consuming and labor-intensive tasks, making cane syrup by mixing, usually by hand, cane sugar crystals and water. HFCS was somewhat of a two-edged sword in the early days, because it meant that the larger the volume the less expensive the feed. Smaller operations were often put at a disadvantage because the material was cheaper and more easily available in large (tanker truck) loads. Today smaller volumes are available, but at a cost.
As beekeepers began to convert to HFCS, several things became apparent. One was that the syrup came in two types from the manufacturer, HFCS 42 and HFCS 55. The number refers to the amount of fructose solids present in the material. For a period there was a debate in beekeeping circles about the merits of both products. HFCS 42 was less expensive and appeared to provide the bees with all that they needed. However, the fact that it had fewer solids meant that a specific volume of the 42 variety was less nutritious than its HFCS 55 cousin. In addition, the 42 variety, because of the way it is manufactured (older technology), may have a number of “contaminant sugars” that 55 does not.
Finally, it is difficult if not impossible to recover HFCS 42 should it crystallize. This is apparently due to the larger amount of glucose (dextrose) present than in 55. Thus, the beekeeper must ensure that the bees consume it fairly quickly, especially in colder weather. My most recent information is that the vast majority of beekeepers use HFCS 55, whereas the 42 variety is only employed, if at all, in the southern U.S. where temperatures are warm which avoids crystallization.
HFCS is made from corn. It is the inevitable result of a very large corn-growing industry in the United States searching for more markets. More recently, there have been efforts to make fuel out of corn, by converting it to alcohol to power engines, as sugar is now used in Brazil. Many argue that both HFCS and ethanol are only inexpensive due to massive subsidies given to those who farm corn and question the products long-range sustainability. Corn subsidies in the United States totaled $34.6 billion from 1995-2002.
Sweetness is the bottom line for HFCS. Fructose for humans is sweeter tasting than sucrose (cane sugar) or glucose (dextrose or grape sugar), as well as most other sugars commonly in use. Thus, less of it is needed to increase sweetness. Honey is such a sweet product because it too contains a high amount of fructose. Chemically speaking honey is similar to HFCS. This brings into play another situation corresponding to the arrival of HFCS, economic adulteration of honey.
In an effort to make a profit, there are few strategies more economically rewarding than adding some cheap ingredient to honey, and charging a higher price for the whole shebang as if it was a pure product. Because of its chemical nature, HFCS is almost the perfect material to adulterate honey.
According to a study by Dr. Gary Fairchild at the University of Florida, funded by the National Honey Board, within the range of the observed data, a one percent increase in quantity or supply (adulterated or not) results in a producer price decrease of 5.07 percent and a retail decrease of 3.88 percent. The bottom line, he says, is the simple fact that expanding supply (from any source) results in a negative price response. When this comes from adulterated product, it is just plain wrong and illegal, hurting industry participants at all levels of the market, from producer (price) to consumer (adulterated product).
Honey adulteration using HFCS was especially rampant in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was virtually impossible for regulators to determine that honey had in fact been adulterated (in some cases up to 80%) with HFCS. This practice was so epidemic that the American Beekeeping Federation developed a program of testing suspect honey samples sent in by beekeepers. This was only possible, however, through the efforts of Dr. Jonathon White, who literally came out of retirement to develop a reasonable testing procedure.
According to the Syndicat des Producteurs de Miel de France, “It is only when the result of the mathematical formula is below 5% that it is deemed certain that a truly natural honey is being dealt with.” This technique has become the official method for the Association of Official Analytical Chemists, registered in 1991 under the n° 991-41. It is used throughout the world, curbing of HFCS adulteration, and was responsible for putting out of business some of the major outfits engaged in this deceptive practice. At least one company now aggressively markets this testing procedure.
Dr. White’s test uses isotope ratio analysis (Stable Carbon Isotope Ratio Analysis or SCIRA) and is based on an interesting and simple premise. It turns out that plants assemble their sugars differently depending on their evolutionary history. Honey generally comes from what are called “flowering plants,”or the angiosperms of the plant world. One division or class of these plants is known as dicotyledons or simply dicots. They are named because they have two seed leaves, but for bees and beekeepers they are important because of their sexual organs, flowers that produce pollen and nectar. Another class of the angiosperms is called monocotyledons or monocots. This includes the grasses; they have one seed leaf and do not produce classical “flowers.” The dicots assemble or manufacture their sugars differently than the monocots. Thus, by comparing the carbon ratios in resultant sugars using isotope analysis, one can determine if a substance like honey comes from the nectar of a dicot or comes from a grass like corn.
Legitimate honey in the vast majority of cases comes only from dicots. Sugar cane too comes from a grass. It is mostly sucrose, however, and requires an enzyme from the bees (invertase) to produce a product rich in one of its components, fructose (fruit sugar). Thus, cane sugar syrup, modified and then stored by bees as a part of the honey crop (in supers), is also considered a honey adulterant.
Although on the surface both sugar cane syrup and HFCS appear similar, can it be taken for granted that the use or “metabolism” of these products by honey bees is the same and/or there is no risk involved in using them? This is a complex question and to my knowledge there is no specific answer developed for honey bees. From a users standpoint, after almost four decades of use by beekeepers, it must be concluded that there seems to be little risk involved.
On the other hand, astute observation in the field by beekeepers reveals some interesting conclusions. Comparing their use of the two main bee foods, cane sugar syrup and HFCS, has convinced some that the two foods do in fact function differently. Thus, several use them in distinct ways: cane syrup is employed to help colonies build population and comb, whereas HFCS is used simply to maintain populations. Intuitively this makes sense, given that nectar, responsible in nature for building colony populations, is mostly sucrose just like cane syrup. It requires the bees to actively invert the sugar using their own enzyme system. HFCS on the other hand does not.
Questions still persist, however. Does the stimulation provided by the sucrose of cane sugar make for a bigger and better colony buildup and comb building than does HFCS, which requires no enzyme to be added by the insects? And what differences, although extremely subtle, might be seen among colonies fed nectar or cane sugar or HFCS, given they have distinct stable carbon isotope ratios?
HFCS is the result of processing corn into another product. There are two ways this can be accomplished, through either acid or enzyme hydrolysis. The process most used employs enzymes just like honey bees do when they convert (invert) sucrose from nectar or cane syrup into its two principle components, fructose and glucose by adding the enzyme invertase.
According to the Corn Refiners Association, “Corn syrup technology advanced significantly with the introduction of enzyme-hydrolyzed products. In 1921, crystalline dextrose hydrate was introduced. Then in the mid-1950’s, the technology for commercially preparing low conversion products such as maltodextrin and low DE syrups was developed. The purification and crystallization of dextrose meant for the first time that corn based sweeteners could compete in some markets that had been the sole domain of the cane sugar industry.
“The next developments involved enzyme catalyzed isomerization of dextrose to fructose. The first commercial shipment of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) took place in 1967. The fructose content of the syrup was around 15 percent. Further research enabled the industry to develop a higher conversion and the first commercial shipment of HFCS-42 or 42 percent fructose syrup took place a year later. Further refinements in the process were developed in the late 1970’s and by the mid 1980’s, HFCS became the sweetener of choice for the soft drink industry in the U.S.”
Although the vast majority of HFCS is produced via enzymes, there continues to be some manufactured by an older technology, acid hydrolysis. Some of this material (called in some cases “off spec,” and thus rejected by food manufacturers) may still be available and has been found to be damaging to honey bees in Canada. Research by Dr. Rob Currie at the University of Manitoba showed that there is a good deal of evidence that off-spec syrup is indeed a culprit killing bees during the winter. Dr. Currie cannot point to the actual mechanism causing the problem. He does warn beekeepers, however, to be aware of two possible problems in off-spec HFCS: low pH (four or lower), and a colored syrup. Most HFCS is colorless; colored syrup may be an indication that it was manufactured by acid hydrolysis.
The driving force to reduce manufacturing costs of HFCS continues to be use of the material in the human food chain. A few years ago, research showed that diets high in fats and a substance called “cholesterol” were found to be responsible for a condition called atherosclerosis, clogging and the arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes. A landmark work in this area, the Framingham Study, revolutionized how physicians looked at fat and cholesterol in the human diet.
From the Framingham and other studies, came routine screening of blood to determine cholesterol levels. If elevated, physicians and others recommended reducing fats and cholesterol is the diet. If this didn’t work and it often didn’t, then the medical and pharmaceutical companies engaged in research to get those numbers down in other ways. The result of that is the phenomenal success of the so-called “statins,” drugs that in essence interfere with the liver’s production of cholesterol, thus reducing its presence in the bloodstream.
The food industry quickly picked up on this trend. Suddenly, the words “fat free” and “no cholesterol” were found everywhere. My favorite continues to be “cholesterol free- never had it, never will” on foods of vegetable origin. It is not a vegetable product; as such this claim is misleading and redundant at best. Also left out in the cacophony was the fact that people, as animals, make their own cholesterol. It doesn’t come just from foods containing the substance. Certain foods containing fat and cholesterol, nevertheless, were immediately suspect, like eggs and cheese (dairy products), and it was not recommended to consume much of them, if at all. As one can imagine, the egg and dairy industry were not happy with this situation.
Drawn into the “no fat” and “no cholesterol” fads were a variety of institutions, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. From this came the now infamous food pyramid, which showed that instead of a lot of animal fats, people should instead consume complex carbohydrates (starches) like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. The pyramid has a checkered history and continues to be redrawn as foods are continually being researched.
There ‘s a problem with no fat foods; they don’t taste very good. The food industry, in search of something to improve the taste of its products, while reducing or eliminating fats, came to the conclusion that the best way was to sweeten the product line. HFCS is a perfect vehicle for this, being cheap and readily available. The result of this is that almost all processed foods have some amount of HFCS. These include things like “no fat” salad dressing. It’s also found in things not normally thought to contain sweets at all: pizza, yogurt, and beer.
Enter the newest thing to catch the public’s and physician’s attention, the obesity epidemic. People are over weight because they eat more calories than they burn. Surprise, carbohydrates are a big reason for this; they contain a lot of energy and if it isn’t used up, it turns to fat. Added weight also brings on other conditions like diabetes, the inability to maintain a balanced sugar level in the blood, often directly influenced through consumption of carbohydrates.
In an effort to loose weight some are re-examining the wisdom that fats and cholesterol are all bad. Suddenly, an old, but now resurrected dietary regimen proposed by Dr. Atkins has taken hold. This states that carbohydrates must be minimized and one can often do that by substituting proteins and fats. Foods like eggs and cheese, anathema to the “no fat” philosophy, have been given a new lease on life. At the same time, concentrated orange juice, once considered “healthy,” is now being eschewed because it has a high carbohydrate level; it is full of fructose.
Carbohydrates can measured by something called the glycemic index (GI). Rick Mendoza, a writer on diabetes concludes: “Before the development of the glycemic index beginning in 1981, scientists assumed that our bodies absorbed and digested simple sugars quickly, producing rapid increases in our blood glucose level. This was the basis of the advice to avoid sugar, a proscription recently relaxed by the American Diabetes Association and others.
“Now we know that simple sugars don’t make your blood glucose rise any more rapidly than some complex carbohydrates do. Of course, simple sugars are simply empty calories, and still should be minimized for that reason. Many of the glycemic index results have been surprises. For example, baked potatoes have a glycemic index considerably higher than that of table sugar.”
Honey and fructose have moderate to high GI’s. And then there’s HFCS. Nobody eats this solely of course and that’s a problem when one attempts to determine health benefits. But there is a lot of it consumed. An article in the Washington Post concludes, “That switch largely reflects the steady growth of high-fructose corn syrup, which climbed from zero consumption in 1966 to 62.6 pounds per person in 2001.”
Much of the HFCS story is not well studied and so it is “murky,” the title of one article on the World Wide Web by Weston A. Price Foundation Board Member Linda Forristal, Much of the information on HFCS put out in the media is incorrect says the Corn Refiners Institute. It concludes this on its web site, where it looks at the “facts” about HFCS and seeks to put this substance in its best light:
“Myth: High fructose corn syrup is not natural.
“Fact: Wrong again. High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a natural grain product and is a natural sweetener. High fructose corn syrup contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives. It meets the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s longstanding policy regarding the use of the term “natural.”
“Myth: High fructose corn syrup is to blame for obesity.
“Fact: Obesity is caused by consuming more calories than are expended and Type II diabetes is associated with obesity. While high fructose corn syrup contributes to calories in the diet, there is no scientific evidence that high fructose corn syrup is a unique contributor to obesity or diabetes. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that consumption of high fructose corn syrup has actually been declining while obesity and diabetes rates continued to rise. Around the world, obesity levels are also rising even though HFCS consumption is limited outside of the U.S. Many other factors contribute to rising obesity levels including changes in lifestyle, diet and exercise and are unrelated to HFCS.
“Myth: High fructose corn syrup is sweeter than sugar.
“Fact: Sorry, no. High fructose corn syrup and sugar (sucrose) have almost the same level of sweetness. HFCS was made to provide the same sweetness as sugar (sucrose) so that consumers would not notice a difference in sweetness or taste. In fact, one type of HFCS commonly used in foods (HFCS-42) is actually less sweet than sugar.
The debate rages on, and the question has yet to be fully answered concerning the metabolism of HFCS in either mammals or insects. We are left to conclude no one yet knows for sure what this revolutionary product really means to either honey bees or humans.