Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Providing Safe Food: Heat forms potentially harmful substance in high-fructose corn syrup

January 04, 2010

A new study shows that heat can produce a
potentially toxic substance in high-fructose corn
syrup that may kill honeybees and might also
endanger human health.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
(High-resolution version)


High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that ubiquitous sweetener in soda, fruit drinks and processed foods, may pose another problem besides adding on the pounds. Researchers have found that heating the syrup promotes formation of potentially dangerous levels of a toxic substance in the HFCS often fed to honey bees. Their study appears in the current issue of ACS’ bi-weekly Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that ubiquitous sweetener in soft drinks and processed foods, sometimes gets blamed for contributing to obesity in humans. It may pose a different threat for honey bees, which are critical for pollinating dozens of food crops. Scientists have found that the syrup, sometimes fed to bees, forms potentially dangerous levels of a toxic substance in the presence of summer-like heat. Their study appears in the current issue of ACS’ bi-weekly Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. That substance is called hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). Here is Diana Sammataro a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, and a member of the study team…

“In addition to high-fructose corn syrup being used in many drinks and foods, some commercial beekeepers also feed it to bees during times when natural food is not available. When exposed to high temperatures, HFCS can form HMF, which can kill honeybees. Some researchers believe that HMF may be one of many contributing factors in Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease that has killed at least one-third of the honeybee population in the United States.”

Sammataro and colleagues measured levels of HMF in HFCS products from different manufacturers over a period of 35 days at different temperatures. As temperatures rose, levels of HMF increased steadily. Levels jumped dramatically at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The data are important for commercial beekeepers, for manufacturers of HFCS, and for purposes of honey bee food storage. Proper storage (not leaving the syrup in tanks outside in the sun) and testing HFCS, is vital to be sure that there is no HMF. If there is any question about if the syrup is safe to feed to bees, either beekeepers should have it tested or throw it away.”

The research team says there appears to be little information on heat’s effects on HMF formation in high fructose corn syrup. Korean scientists appear to have been the only researchers to publish research in this area.

“Given the increasing use of high fructose corn syrup as feed by commercial beekeepers and concerns about HMF being produced when the syrup is heated, this prompted us to investigate the rates of HMF formation in samples obtained from United States HFCS manufacturers. In our study here in Tucson, the HMF was generally higher in samples obtained from beekeepers who had not stored the syrup properly. We are currently finishing up work on how well how well bees survived over winter, feeding on HFCS vs. sugar syrup. This work will soon be published.”

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check our full-length podcast on Providing Safe Foods. Today’s podcast was written by Michael Bernstein. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

Diana Sammataro, Ph.D. Image courtesy of Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tucson, Ariz.