Lots of myth and misinformation surrounds high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and whether it is bad for bees. I decided to do some research to find out what the experts are saying about this American food staple. I came up with a short Q&A.
Q: What is the difference between regular corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup?
A: Regular corn syrup, also known as glucose syrup, has been used since 1812. Although the preferred processes for making it have changed over the years, it is manufactured by adding enzymes to corn starch. It is basically 100% glucose.
HFCS became available in the early 1970s. It is made by treating regular corn syrup with additional enzymes that convert some of the glucose to fructose. The most popular type is HFCS 55, which is 55% fructose. Also available, but seldom used, is HFCS 90, which is 90% fructose.
Regular corn syrup is often confused with HFCS, which is unfortunate because they are not the same thing.
Q: When and why did HFCS become a popular food ingredient?
A: HFCS became popular during the sugar shortage of the 1970s. Without reliable supplies of sugar, food manufacturing companies turned to a sweetener they could obtain from domestically-grown corn.
Both types of corn syrup are used in baking. In general, corn syrup is used as a sweetener and a thickener. It is also prized for retaining moisture, helping to maintain the freshness of baked goods. In addition, HFCS is used to prevent crystallization in certain products. As beekeepers know, honey with lots of fructose is slow to crystallize, while honey high in glucose can crystallize quickly.
Q: How is HFCS different from sugar?
A: Granulated sugar contains 50% fructose and 50% glucose. The two molecules are bound together to form the disaccharide known as sucrose. Sucrose is found naturally in many plants and in nectar.
HFCS contains 55% fructose and the rest is glucose. However, instead of being bound together, the two molecules remain separate.
Q: Why is HFCS bad for humans?
A: According to the Mayo Clinic, HFCS isn’t any worse for humans than sugar. When we eat sugar, the first thing our digestive tract does is break down the sucrose into fructose and glucose, ending up the same way HFCS starts out. By the time they enter the bloodstream, the are virtually identical. The Mayo Clinic site says, “At this time, there’s insufficient evidence to say that high-fructose corn syrup is any less healthy than other types of sweeteners.”
Q: Why do some doctors say both refined sugar and HFCS are bad for our health?
A: The problem with both types of sweetener seems to be the fructose component. Glucose is immediately available to our cells for energy or it can be stored as glycogen. But our cells cannot use fructose directly. Fructose most first be converted to glucose by the liver. If it’s not needed immediately, it is stored as fat. Some nutritionists believe that since we have a greater propensity to store fructose as fat, we should avoid foods that are high in fructose. Others disagree, but since table sugar is 50% fructose and HFCS is 55% fructose, they are very similar in their effect.
Q: But what about bees? Is HFCS bad for them?
A: It is important to remember that bees are not mammals. Their digestive and metabolic systems are different from ours in many ways. A bee’s source of food energy is nectar—a substance made of sucrose, glucose, fructose and other simple sugars.
When bees collect nectar, the sucrose portion is immediately broken down into fructose and glucose by their salivary glands. These simple sugars are added to the others found in nectar and stored as honey. As mentioned earlier, some of this honey is extremely high in fructose. Honey bees have evolved to thrive on a high-fructose diet with no ill effects—in fact, they require it.
Honey bees live a very short lifespan, and with the exception of winter bees, most never accumulate significant fat reserves, regardless of how much fructose they eat.
Q: Doesn’t HFCS contain HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural)?
A: It can, especially if it gets old or is stored at high temperatures. But anything with lots of fructose, including sugar syrup and honey, can also contain HMF if not handled and stored properly.
Q: I thought HFCS is made from genetically modified corn.
A: It is. Both HFCS and beet sugar are usually produced from GMOs, at least in the U.S.
Q: So you think HFCS is okay for honey bees?
A: Let’s slow down, a bit. While I do not believe HFCS by itself is harmful to honey bees, I think a lack of honey probably is. A diet made of mostly HFCS would lack the vitamins, minerals, pollen, and micronutrients found in honey. All of the little extras help the bees build a strong immune system, among other things.
Honey bees need to eat honey. Period. If you run short of honey, or want to add a supplemental food supply, I think HFCS, handled properly, is fine. But for the long term, your bees will need more nutrition than HFCS can offer.
Honey Bee Suite