Monday, October 26, 2009

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

In the latest Zingerman's catalog I wrote a piece about traditional uses of corn syurp in candy making. The full article is below.

If you'd like to learn more about the chemistry of sugars, here's a piece by Marion Nestle. Among many other things, she is the author of What to Eat, a book in that caught my eye for the simple but insightful observation that food around the edges of supermarkets is much less processed than that in the middle aisles.

How did it come to be that American companies find it profitable to turn corn into sugar instead of using actual sugar? I wrote some basics about the crazy economics in this post.

Is Corn Syrup Evil?

Poor corn.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the vegetable. It’s been the subject of exposés putting it at the center of America’s industrial food problems, including obesity and diabetes. In Michael Pollan’s (highly recommended) Omnivore’s Dilemma and the movie it inspired, King Corn, it’s nearly criminal.

Corn-derived products have also felt the bad rap, in particular corn syrup. Does it deserve it? Like most food villains, there's some truth to the complaints. But, like in a lot of debates, things are never quite as black and white as they seem.

On the negative side, corn has benefitted from specific agricultural subsidies encouraging its production and others that restricted trade on substitutes, most importantly cane sugar. The limits raised the price—up to the point where it makes sense to create the more expensive industrial high fructose corn syrup on a large scale. Most aspects of industrial corn syrup—from growing to refining—are fossil fuel intensive.

On the positive side, though, corn syrup has been a part of American culinary history since at least around the time of the Civil War. It’s been used in moderate amounts in all kinds of dishes. Most important to us, candy makers have long used the special properties of corn syrup to control sugar crystallization. If you want to keep a candy soft and gooey, corn syrup is great.

For example, corn syrup gives caramel its texture. The other sugars and dairy give the caramel its flavor. The chemical reaction that breaks down corn’s polysaccharide carbohydrate into sugar’s monosaccharide glucose is relatively simple. The main ingredient is water. Once made, corn syrup is not as sweet as refined sugar (though the high fructose version is much sweeter).

Larger concerns aside, at Zingerman’s, we don’t think corn syrup is entirely evil. Corn syrup is not the primary sweetener at Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory but it is used. Charlie, the candy maker, also sweetens his candy bars with raw honey, traditional muscovado brown sugar, maple sugar and regular old granulated cane sugar. Each one contributes to the texture and flavor of his finished candy.

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