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Milestone LCA of US High Fructose Corn Syrup Production Offers Impact Reduction Insights, Addresses Crucial Data Gap

A new milestone report on the US corn processing industry offers the first published life cycle assessment (LCA) of American high fructose corn syrup (HFCS and HFCS 55) production based on industry-scale primary data, providing insight into impact-reduction opportunities, and an important contribution to the LCA knowledge base for the huge range of products that incorporate HFCS.  The assessment was based on confidential primary data supplied by 13 participating facilities, including material and energy inputs and emissions for milling, refining and co-product drying.  

Prior to this work, there are no published analyses of the life cycle environmental impacts of HFCS 55 (or associated sweeteners) reflecting industry practice from primary data at industry scale. Indeed, there are very few assessments of the environmental impact of HFCS as a product, industry-scale or otherwise.

Developed by EarthShift Global in conjunction with the Corn Refiners Association and Professor Kurt A. Rosentrater of Iowa State University, and published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Energy Research, the comprehensive report presents a previously unavailable perspective on actual industry practice at a diverse range of facilities in the US HFCS industry.

Since commercial production began in 1964, HFCS has become one of the most widely used sweeteners and is a common ingredient in thousands of food products, from soft drinks to sauces, breads, and fast food. US HFCS production in 2021 was just over 7.5 million tons dry weight, according to the US Department of Agriculture, down from annual levels of over 9 million tons as recently as 2012; roughly 6 percent of the US corn crop is used for its manufacture.

Source: https://corn.org/cra-lca-highlights-sustainability-goals/

LCA of HFCS Finds Wide Variation in Corn Refining

The review of the 13 industrial corn processing facilities showed substantial variation in products and processes; as the report notes, "the corn refining industry is not so much a single, coherent industry as it is many individual operators in the same general collective space."

The report adds, “Possibly the largest influence on the LCA results was the fact the process structure for refining varies among corn refineries. This is driven by variation among product slates: not every site produces every sweetener product, nor do the sites produce the same products in similar proportions.”

However, the authors (including Dr. Caroline Taylor, former EarthShift Global director of R&D, with support from our director of analytical services Nathan Ayer) were able to identify key areas for further analysis and low-hanging-fruit opportunities for improvement as well as longer term strategies.

The publication also marks a significant step forward in availability of public impact and inventory data on the corn milling process and HFCS, “address[ing] a crucial gap in data needed for robust LCA of HFCS-based products that hampers assessment of environmental impacts for many food and other products,” says the paper.

Impacts were found to be largely driven by combustion emissions (for generation of grid electricity used in the processing plants or, in many cases, on-site cogeneration) and fertilizer production and use. This allowed for development of clear targets for improvement. With fossil fuels supplying over 90% of the refining industry’s energy demand, reducing energy consumption in combination with a switch to lower-carbon and lower-emission fuel sources could significantly reduce impacts.

Source: Comprehensive life cycle assessment of the corn wet milling industry in the United States, Frontiers in Energy Research

HFCS Sustainability: Significant Potential to Improve

Notably, facilities employing combined heat and power systems fired by natural gas had lower impact potentials; while each facility and fuel type would face different scenarios, the biggest improvement would be for the sites using coal-fired cogeneration systems. “Changing from coal intensive to a natural gas intensive corn milling and refining system, and, of more significant potential benefit, transition to biogas from process residues has significant potential to improve the sustainability of HFCS,” states the report.

Opportunities for additional study include greater collection of water usage data at corn refineries, which would enable better assessment of several LCA impact areas, and closer study of upstream corn production to get higher-resolution data for sourcing decisions. There are also opportunities for corn processors to work more closely with corn growers to decrease impacts while maintaining productivity.

Looking broadly at the industry, the report points out that initiatives are in place to address impacts of corn production and emissions from energy consumption. “These goals, when looked at alongside the results of this study, are a potential indicator of the positive trend in reducing environmental impact across the corn wet milling industry,” it says. One company is seeking to reduce absolute GHG emissions by 25% and energy intensity of operations by 15% by 2035, and many have engaged in partnerships with other food and agriculture industry organizations to reduce the environmental impact of corn sourcing, including one that is seeking to “sustainably source” 100% of its primary crops across all operations by 2030.

Studies like this one provide a framework for sustainability practitioners and the broader food and agriculture community to collaborate on unlocking the full potential of sustainable growing and production practices. In addition to enabling more-informed choices, better data provides a sound rational basis for identifying and encouraging responsible practices all along the supply chain. EarthShift Global’s extensive experience in the food and agriculture sectors can help your company or industry organization uncover insights that drive positive change and create a more sustainable future — contact us today at [email protected] or by calling +1 (207) 608-6228.