With the recent announcement by the FDA that they will not allow the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of “corn syrup” to “corn sugar” on food labels, I thought I would celebrate by finally putting out a little blog I’ve been sitting on for a few months that covers our relationship (or lack there of!) to corn syrup and why it’s so important to us at BBx.
Corn syrup is the primary invert sugar used in confectionery. What’s an invert sugar, you ask? Well, it’s a culinary term used to describe a kind of sugar that’s pretty shy and keeps to itself…. (Damn. How did that “dad joke” get into this blog post?!)
Invert sugars are extremely important in confectionery. Their primary function is to prevent the candy, whether it’s a hard candy or a fondant or everything in between, from crystallizing. But what exactly is an invert sugar? Simply put, it’s a syrup of some kind. It can be any syrup; some common examples are agave, honey, maple, or as I’ve mentioned, corn syrup. Some confectioners even make their own invert sugars using granulated sugar that they cook into a syrup.
I’m not going to get all nerdy and go food scientist on you but suffice to say using an invert sugar makes manufacturing or making confections much easier, the downside being that it can add a significant cost to the price of a finished product if you’re trying to use a non-corn syrup alternative. Let’s talk about how corn syrup goes from kernel to bottle and why that matters.
Corn syrup is made using a process called wet milling. It is described pretty succinctly at Sweet Scam, a corn syrup advocacy group:
“To make high fructose corn syrup, the corn is first harvested and sent to the wet mill.
Next, the corn is crushed in a mill and then run through screens in order to separate the corn starch from other parts of the kernel.
After being separated, natural enzymes are added to the liquid, which converts some of the sugars in the liquid from glucose to fructose. The resulting liquid is typically 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose.
From there, the liquid is passed through activated carbon and filtered.
The final product is called HFCS-42, and is used to sweeten many baked goods.
Some of the HFCS-42 then goes through a liquid filtration process to increase the fructose content, creating a liquid that is 90 percent fructose. This product is called HFCS-90.
Finally, the two liquids, HFCS-42 and HFCS-90, are blended to make a mixture that is 55% fructose. The final blend, called HFCS-55, is widely used as a sweetener in sodas.”
It is noteworthy to mention two things here:
1) The “activated carbon” described above is most commonly what is called “bone char,” charcoal made from the bones of dead animals, usually cows. So most conventionally processed sugars, even the granulated kind, are not vegetarian or vegan.
2) There is only one non-GMO, organic corn syrup out there that I’m aware of and, to my knowledge, it’s not being used by any candy makers. When you see corn syrup on a food label, what you are getting is something that began as a genetically modified, chemically-farmed food crop that has been highly processed into a nutritionless sugar substance.
It’s hard to understand how the Corn Refiners Association can call this product “natural” considering how many steps, alterations, and chemical processes it has to undergo to be usable in the form of corn syrup. Don’t be fooled by claims that all sugars are the same because they are chemically composed of glucose and fructose. That is a truth but it fails to recognize that in order for the body to digest and integrate glucose and fructose, it needs a set of essential enzymes and nutrients that are stripped away in the refining process making it terribly difficult for your body to digest. Hence the spike you get in blood sugar when consuming highly refined sugars like corn syrup. But don’t take my word for it, read more from our guest blogger, nutritionist and dietician Alex Mart.
According to this infographic, high-fructose corn syrup consitutes 10% of caloric intake in a typical American’s diet. So corn syrup is cheap and it’s in everything. How did we get here, you may wonder?
According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Farm Subsidy Database, between 1995-2010, corn was subsidized by the US Government in an amount exceeding $77 billion, making it the most highly subsidized crop as well as extremely cheap for food producers to use in their products. In addition to the consistency the producer is able to maintain as a result of the heavy processing of the product, the cost savings over other alternative ingredients makes is an obvious choice. So the candymaker, or other food manufacturer, is gaining a cost savings and enjoys minimal variance in results of their finished product. Why wouldn’t anyone use this instead of the more costly alternatives like honey, maple, and brown rice syrup?
Our country’s Obesity Epidemic has been garnering a lot of media attention recently. HBO’s Weight of the Nation and Gary Taubes’ Newsweek cover story are only two very recent examples of the much needed growing dialogue on the subject. It’s becoming clear that one of the biggest contributing factors is the overuse of refined sugars.
Some confectioners are wisely starting to shift their invert sugar to healthier alternatives. We at Barbary Brix use organic brown rice syrup from sustainable, organic Northern California growers, Lundberg Family Farm. Let’s talk about how this is made and what it is.
Janet Souza over at Lundberg described their process for us:
1) Brown rice is cultured with plenty of water and gluten-free enzymes
2) The enzymes help digest the brown rice and convert the starches to sugars
3) The resulting liquid is cooked down into brown rice syrup
Simple, right? None of this chemistry mumbo jumbo. We love it and feel great about using it in our product. Unlike corn syrup, this organic brown rice syrup has the nutrients and enzymes your body needs to break it down efficiently and integrate it for ready use as energy in your body. Your body is able to do this at a more sustained rate, so you get less of that spazzed out sugar rush; basically, it’s significantly lower glycemic than refined sugar.
We also love the flavor it imparts! Unlike the flavorless, saccharine-y corn syrup, brown rice syrup adds a creamy, earthy, almost maltiness to our caramels. We often get asked why our product tastes so buttery despite the fact that we don’t add butter. In addition to the high quality, organic cream we use, we believe the inherent creaminess of the brown rice syrup amps up this quality in our product without making it too sweet or cloying.
To summarize, in my humble opinion, it’s time for all of us as consumers to start expecting healthier food alternatives that exclude corn syrup. It’s in everything from pasta sauce to “fruit” juices; just take a gander at those food labels and you’ll see! We want to see food manufacturers treat their consumers’ health with respect; taking the 10% of caloric intake from corn syrup OUT of our food products would be a great step in the right direction.
It’s a tall order and nothing will be fixed overnight. Mark Bittman at the New York Times wrote a great, balanced piece last year on the subject of the past/present state and future possibilities of farm subsidies and their relationship to our food choices, corn syrup included. If you’d like to become more informed, it’s well worth your time to give it a read.
In the meantime, go ahead and feel good about enjoying your corn syrup free Barbary Brix caramels and spread the love about healthier, responsibly made candy options!
Yours Truly, MelissaTweet