Candy

Why Corn Syrup Isn't Evil

August  7, 2015

Food52's Test Kitchen Manager Erin McDowell is here, with tips and tricks to help you master the ABCs of baking.

Today: What's the deal with corn syrup? You may be surprised.

This may be the first time I’m going to type a phrase that I know will stir the masses into a fiery hubbub of contention (turns out when you make a living writing about cake and cookies, there’s not a lot of debate surrounding your offerings). But I will not hide behind a sticky plastic bottle as I make this proclamation. It’s true: Corn syrup isn’t evil, at least not entirely—and definitely not for the reasons you think it is. 

I’ll admit that I began the journey to this opinion completely uninformed. In pastry school, we used corn syrup, especially when we were making candy, ice cream, certain frostings and glazes, and pastries. We also used other sweetener syrups. They weren’t used interchangeably: Everything was used in certain amounts and ratios, but aside from what was asked on our standard end-of-week tests, I didn’t really care to know why.

But when I left school and started writing recipes for home cooks, the questions/comments/angry rants started pouring into my inbox. “Corn syrup?!? Ugh!” People demanded substitutions for this vile, processed product that, in their minds, was responsible for the fattening of our entire country and the downfall of our culinary contributions to the world.

I was enraged, too; having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The End of Food, I set out to figure out what we could be using at home to replace this awful ingredient. What I discovered instead was lot of information that, while not strictly in defense of corn syrup (or the plethora of processed foods it can be found in), proved I’d been looking at it all wrong. But before I start sounding like one of those “It’s made from real corn and it’s fine in moderation” commercials, let’s looks at some facts. 

Understanding Sugar

The first step to understanding corn syrup is to understand sugar. There are dozens of varieties of naturally occurring sugars, but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll be focusing on four: sucrose, glucose, maltose, and fructose (these specifics come from Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking). 

  • Sucrose is the scientific name for our regular, commonplace granulated sugar. Plants naturally produce sucrose during photosynthesis, and it’s most commonly harvested from the stalks of sugar cane and the stems of sugar beets. It is composed of 2 molecular parts: 1 glucose molecule and 1 fructose molecule. Compared to the other sweeteners we’ll be discussing, it is the second in concentration of sweetness (and, unlike fructose and glucose, tastes good when used alone in larger amounts). It is the second most soluble sweetener and will dissolve in a 2:1 solution of sweetener to water to produce a naturally thick solution (think simple syrup). Sucrose melts at 320° F and caramelizes at 340° F. 

  • Glucose, also known as dextrose, is a naturally occurring sweetener that can be found in fruit and honey. Glucose is only a part of a composition that contains many molecules, with the glucose molecules building chains of starch in more complex structures. Glucose is less sweet than sucrose, less soluble in water, and produces a thinner sugar solution. It melts and begins to caramelize at 300° F. 

  • Maltose is the formation of 2 glucose chains together. Its sweetness level, solubility, and melting/caramelization temperatures match those of glucose. 

  • Fructose, also known as levulose, has the same molecular composition as glucose but the atoms are arranged differently, which results in different structural chains. Like glucose, fructose is naturally occurring and can be found (along with other sweeteners) in fruit and honey. Fructose is the sweetest of the four and the most water-soluble (4 parts fructose will dissolve in 1 part water); it also absorbs and retains water more effectively than the other fruit sweeteners. It melts and caramelizes at just 220° F. Additionally, fructose possesses several unique properties. The structure of the molecule actually changes when dissolved in different temperatures of water, and these structural changes affect its discernible level of sweetness. Fructose seems sweeter when dissolved in cold water, with a sweetness closer to that of sucrose when dissolved in warm water. Most interestingly, our bodies metabolize fructose more slowly than sucrose or glucose. This slow metabolization raises blood glucose levels more slowly, making it the lowest naturally occurring sugar on the glycemic index (and therefore preferable to other sugars for diabetics). 

The Syrup Discussion

Armed with this information, it’s now easier to understand our next segment: the syrup discussion. The first ingredient to understand is called glucose syrup (which is sometimes shortened in recipes and formulas to "glucose"—for purposes of clarification, I’ll refer to by its longer form). Glucose syrup was first made in Russia, where they discovered that adding an acid to potato starch broke down the starch (inside which glucose exists) and resulted in a thick sugar syrup. Over time, scientists found that using malted barley instead of an acid produced similar results. Eventually, in countries that produced high volumes of wheat, this technique was used to break down wheat starch rather than potato starch. Regardless of the original plant origin (in America, it's generally wheat) the resulting sweetener is called glucose syrup. 

Glucose syrup isn’t commonly available in grocery stores, but it is used widely in professional kitchens, bakeshops, and commercial food production. As someone who has used it, I can say that it’s wonderful and useful for a variety of reasons (and now I even understand why). Glucose syrup essentially consists of long strands of carbohydrates that get all tangled together but never fully bond. This creates a thick syrup that’s thicker than even the most concentrated sucrose solution.

When you add glucose syrup to a recipe, it continues to get tangled with the other ingredients in the formula; it interferes with the molecules and how they move and bind to one another. This prevents (or at least drastically reduces) the other sugars present in the recipe from forming the crystals that create a grainy, unpleasant texture. It also helps reduce the formation of ice crystals in frozen desserts, which leads to smoother, creamier results. Additionally, glucose syrup contains some acid and thereby contributes to leavening by reacting with baking soda or other chemical leaveners. It also makes baked goods chewier and more tender and helps retain moisture, which prolongs shelf life.  

Corn syrup is produced from corn (no surprise) and is produced in essentially the same way as glucose syrup. First, the starch is extracted from the corn. Then an acid is added to break down the starch into individual glucose molecules and short glucose chains (maltose). The mixture is finally clarified and evaporated to create a thick syrup. 

First revelation: Corn syrup is essentially glucose. Yes, it is processed in a way that alters glucose from its naturally occurring form (in nature, glucose is usually present alongside other sugars, not alone), but it is basically just glucose. Plus, it’s the closest product to glucose syrup you’ll find in a standard grocery store (though the wonders of the internet mean you can have access to glucose syrup if you prefer it). 

But most importantly, the advantages of using corn syrup are the same as those that come from using glucose syrup: prevention of crystallization (both from sugar and ice), better internal textures, leavening assistance, moisture retention, and a longer shelf life.

Some types of corn syrup are treated with additional enzymes that convert some of the glucose into fructose. This creates a sweeter syrup—known as high fructose corn syrup—that can be used in smaller amounts to achieve the same level of sweetness. It's very appealing to large companies producing processed food and drink: Because they need less of it to sweeten a product, they save money. High fructose corn syrup usually contains about 53% glucose and 42% fructose. By controlling the digestion of starch, additional varieties of corn syrup can be made, including maltodextrin and high maltose corn syrup. All three of these syrups are used in commercial production of hundreds of processed foods but are not readily available for consumer purchase. 

While the exact consequences of consuming large amounts of fructose are still being studied, it should be noted that corn syrup as its sold in regular stores generally is not of the high fructose variety (and Karo brand syrup contains no high fructose corn syrup). Just like all refined sugar, corn syrup shouldn't be consumed in excessive amounts, but using it in baking recipes doesn't necessarily need to be avoided beyond the normal concerns of eating too much sugar. 

One additional syrup of note is invert sugar. Invert sugar is made by heating sucrose with an acid. Much like the acid breaks down the starch in the production of glucose syrup or corn syrup, acid also breaks down sucrose into its two sub-parts (glucose and fructose). This process, called inversion, results in a thick syrup that’s about 75% glucose and fructose and 25% sucrose. Due to high levels of glucose and fructose, invert sugar also prevents crystallization and is used just as commonly as glucose syrup in professional kitchens, bakeshops, and commercial food production. Invert sugar is available for purchase online, but you can even make your own by adding citric acid to a sucrose solution. It should be noted that invert sugar syrup is discernibly sweeter than corn syrup and is therefore most often used in conjunction with sucrose in recipes (basically just enough so that it can aid to the prevention of crystallization). 

So what’s the takeaway? Certainly not that all sweeteners are created equal. I’m just as outraged as the next person by the high level of sweeteners (especially processed sweeteners) in processed foods and I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone make consumption of these products a part of your diet by saying that corn syrup is a-okay.

But when it comes to baking at home, these sweeteners have a purpose. Understanding why corn syrup gives you perfectly smooth caramels or creamy gelato is something we should all take into account when trying a recipe that calls for it in ingredient list. 

When do you use corn syrup? Share with us in the comments below.

34 Comments

HRH February 10, 2017
Thank you SO MUCH for clarifying this for me. I've shied away from making many a sweet thing because of "evil corn syrup". We are not sweets- eaters in general but sometimes, you just want to make that special thing!
 
Natalia F. January 17, 2016
Please please please read more on fructose before you state that it's better for diabetics. Fructose's metabolic pathway leads towards creating fat out of it. so using fructose as a replace for other sugars may cause obesity, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, this way leading to metabolic syndrome and also may cause heart disease. For more information i advise you read Harpers Illustrated Biochemistry or any other medical textbook's chapter on carbohydrates metabolism (and don't take scientific information from a cookbook...)
 
Georgia L. January 4, 2016
This was a great read!<br /><br />But on a side note: honey is a naturally occuring inverted sugar. If someone finds a recipe that called for inverted sugar, they can use honey as a replacement (1 for 1)... although should remember that honey has a flavour while invert sugar does not.
 
gardeningal December 30, 2015
Thank you for the education. I have to say, my two "web scientists" as I call them (pictured above) enlightened me on this subject a while ago. So, now and again I use corn syrup in place of sugar for certain desserts. It has been taboo on the food labels for a long time. We, the consumers of all these yummy, sweet confections have to learn to eat them in moderation. Next article: Butter vs.margarine ? (This should be easier..)
 
Lily T. December 27, 2015
I have a question, how does FRUCTOSE specifically compare to Raw sugar ( or brown sugar) and/or Coconut sugar? Could you perhaps write something about those and compare it to fructose? I am curious.
 
melloone December 26, 2015
Great information. I believe, the real question is not whether we should be using corn syrup but what damage any of the simple sugars does to our health.
 
catalinalacruz December 26, 2015
Really informative, whether one wants to add corn syrup to their pantry or not. Now we know WHY corn syrup is used for certain results. This article is in the tradition of America's Test Kitchen and Alton Brown (where IS Alton anyway?), and I for one would like to see more articles on Food 52 that explain the why and how of ingredients and procedures.
 
Bruce Y. January 18, 2016
Alton is busy with Cutthroat Kitchen, so Good Eats isn't being produced. He's also active in other Food Network productions.
 
S. R. September 13, 2015
My dad was a pastry chef so there was always Karo's corn syrup in the cupboard (in fact, I think I recently saw a half filled bottle tucked in the dark recess of the cupboard) but he always used it for frostings and we used it pancakes. I have skipped many recipes because of the whole high fructose corn syrup thing and one day I mentioned that to him and he said corn syrup and high fructose are two different products. I still have not brought myself to buy corn syrup but like many of the commenters have said there are now GMO options so maybe now we will start having shiny cake frosting again :) On a side note my mom would sometimes put a little bit of the corn syrup in the baby's milk bottles to help with constipation.
 
Sage August 13, 2015
It is absolutely true that if a corn product of any kind is purchased in the U.S. and is NOTclearly indicated as being organic, or non-GMO, you will be getting GMOs. Soy products of any type unless labelled otherwise, are also now mostly genetically modified. Round-up ready caramels anyone?
 
Dorinda August 13, 2015
Informative. Thank you for taking the time to share this information. I would like to add that most corn grown is a GMO product, so personally, I prefer to use organic corn syrup when needed. :)
 
Ioane F. August 13, 2015
Very enlightening and educational article.
 
Gayle H. August 13, 2015
Very informative and unbiased article.
 
angela August 13, 2015
if gmo is a concern for anyone. over 90percent of corn produced in america is gmo.
 
Jana O. August 10, 2015
Excellent article, thanks for the consolidation of information. Seems like the articles from Food52 are hit or miss, depending on who is the author. This article is an absolute hit! Unlike the GMO-labeling article I read earlier, Erin's article contains the real information that consumers need to make their decisions. Thank you!
 
Andrea B. August 9, 2015
Great article Erin. I love to educate myself about food in general. I think if we abide my the everything in moderation rule then a little corn syrup use is just fine! We grew smothering our pancakes in corn syrup-it's pretty heavenly actually and it's been years since I bought the stuff (due to the hype) so I might have to find a homemade ice cream recipe to try!
 
henandchicks August 7, 2015
One inverted sugar product I have used with terrific success is Trimoline. I use it in small quantities in roulades and similar cakes, sorbets, even some cookies. It really extends shelf life and decreases crystallization. (this reduced crystalization makes the roulade "bendier", with a good mouthfeel) Even home bakers would probably enjoy using this product- I think you can get it from Amazon. You likely have to buy a drum of it, but it lasts forever, and really is fun to experiment with.
 
FJT August 7, 2015
Nicely balanced article. I rarely eat desserts and am horrified by the amount of sweeteners (of any variety) in most products here in the US (even the bread is sweet - ugh!), but I believe being informed about what you're eating and making a lot of the food you eat yourself so that you know and understand what it contains is key.
 
Sandra R. August 7, 2015
Thank you! I am Southern and really did not get the fuss about Karo syrup. It says on the bottle not high fructose corn syrup. It is useful in icings (7 minute frosting), sorbets, and candies you do not want to crystallize. Very nice article, good research, thanks.
 
Smaug August 7, 2015
Good Lord, this is an easygoing site-I was expecting a storm of vitriol on this one for sure.
 
Kat December 28, 2015
Me too!
 
Barbara J. August 7, 2015
And you can buy non-GMO organic corn syrup easily.
 
oneteaspoon August 7, 2015
Absolutely! There's a pretty good chance the corn that was used to produce the corn syrup was genetically modified. If that's something you want to avoid, organic corn syrup is the way to go!
 
Ness August 7, 2015
Quick note: Organic foods are often genetically modified as genetic modifications can be used to reduce use of pesticides. Also, GMOs are not the enemy; this (very long) well-researched article explains the debate surrounding them in a fair-minded way: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html
 
Lenz August 11, 2015
Vanessa, This is simply not true. Organic standards, the world over, prohibit the use of GM foods, crops etc. You can simply check that by googling organic standards (NOP in the US, COR in Canada, JAS in Japan….). Organic standards do not make any allowance for organic crops and foods as they have not been proven safe nor sustainable.
 
Lenz August 11, 2015
Sorry the last sentence should have read: Organic standards do not make any allowance for GM crops and foods as they have not been proven safe nor sustainable.
 
oneteaspoon August 11, 2015
Whoa, that's absolutely not true. Organics do not permit the use of any GMOs. You can confirm this quickly by reading the organic standard (either on the USDA or CFIA website ). The safety of GMOs have not been proven, despite what the multi-billion dollar agri-chemical companies lead us to believe. Both sides (anti and pro GMO) are in search of the truth on this issue. And currently, there isn't enough "science based" evidence to prove that GMOs are safe (both for us and the environment).
 
Barbara J. August 11, 2015
Wholesome brand organic corn syrup is certified non GMO