Reading labels and ingredients on food packages is already the norm for us vegans. But oftentimes, that’s only the beginning of figuring out what REALLY goes into your food. Because when you see strange names in the list, it becomes a puzzle you must solve before you put that food in your mouth.
However, simple, unassuming names can also be suspicious sometimes. Corn syrup, for example looks completely innocent. But do you know how it is made? Have you ever thought of asking, is corn syrup vegan? Well it depends on the source. Are you curious now? Read on.
What Is Corn Syrup Exactly?
If “syrup” made you think of honey, well you’re close because corn syrup is a sweetener. However, corn syrup is so much more thicker and is only mildly sweet. But even with its mild taste, its abundant use in the food industry might surprise you.
Now how do you make corn syrup?
Corn syrup is a product of cornstarch, and is the perfect example of how starches can be made into sugar. This is made possible by a process called acid hydrolysis.
To initiate this process, a combination of wet cornstarch and hydrochloric acid undergoes heating under pressure. This will allow the starch molecules to break down and convert itself to sugar.
Interruptions can be done at different points during this process to get varying levels of sweetness. The longer the process goes, the sweeter the resulting syrup gets.
Once a syrup with the desired sweetness is obtained, it will be filtered or clarified. This will remove odor and color, which is why most corn syrups are clear. Although corn syrups sold in the market today comes in two types:
- Light corn syrup – with vanilla and salt, clear with moderate sweetness
- Dark corn syrup – contains molasses, which gives the syrup a caramel color and a stronger flavor. It may also have salt and sodium benzoate as preservative
But that’s not the final process yet. It will still require refining and evaporation to reduce its water content, leaving it really thick. The final corn syrup can also be turned into crystalline powder, also known as corn syrup solids. To do this, the syrup must pass through a spray dryer which will remove 97% of its water.
Corn syrup is 100% glucose or dextrose, which is also why it goes by the name glucose syrup too. It is the choice of sweetener when you don’t want the sweetness to overpower the rest of the food’s flavor.
Now you might also ask about high fructose corn syrup or HFCS. Well they are not the same. HFCS is the sweeter and more refined product of corn syrup. To turn corn syrup into HFCS, an enzyme conversion must be done. This converts a percentage of the dextrose content into fructose, making it much sweeter.
Uses Of Corn Syrup In Foods
- Enhances flavor
- Softens food
- Adds volume
- Prevents sugar crystallization
- Mild sweetener
- Helps to retain food moisture (humectant)
- Smoothens food texture
- Provides shine
- Prolongs food freshness
Common Foods That Contain Corn Syrup and HFCS
- Salad dressing
- Sweetened yogurt
- Canned fruits
- Junk food (especially frozen ones)
- Granola bars
- Breakfast cereals
- Cereal bars and nutrition bars
- Boxed dinners
- Store-bought baked goods
- Snack foods
- Coffee creamer
- Energy or sports drinks
- Jams and jellies
- Ice cream
Corn Syrup Vs Sugar
Little by little, corn syrup is starting to replace table sugar in the world of food processing. This is because aside from corn syrup’s multiple uses, it’s also cheaper than sugar.
While both are technically sugars, corn syrup is different from (table) sugar. Corn syrup is pure glucose, while table sugar is sucrose.
What does this mean in terms of diet and nutrition?
Glucose is a single molecule sugar, while sucrose has two molecules. During digestion, double molecules will have to be broken down first into single molecules for absorption. In the case of sucrose, it will have to be broken down into glucose and fructose first. Single molecule sugars do not require this, which makes absorption faster.
However, this can be a problem for our body. Since glucose does not need to be broken down, its absorption goes directly to the bloodstream. This means it will raise blood sugar levels faster than all other sugars.
Fructose, on the other hand, after being broken down from sucrose, will have to pass the liver for conversion into glucose. However, our liver can only handle so much, so anything in excess will turn to cholesterol and triglycerides. It can also overload the liver. This is why too much sugar can lead to various diseases.
In terms of taste, corn syrup is only ¾ as sweet as sugar. However, high fructose corn syrup is sweeter than table sugar for as much as ¾.
Table sugar, especially the brown one, has a distinct taste that may affect food flavor. Corn syrup has a more neutral flavor, which makes it suitable for foods that only need sweetness without a molasses-like flavor.
Is Corn Syrup Vegan?
Corn is of course naturally vegan. However, food production these days can be difficult to trace especially when manufacturers rely on third-party suppliers. Cutting down to the chase, only non-GMO corn syrup can be guaranteed naturally vegan.
I’m sure this will raise more questions so I’ll give you more details.
It is a well-known fact that most corns in the market today are GMOs. For a lot of corn farmers, this is the fastest way to meet the continuously rising demand for corn products. In the U.S. particularly, being the world’s largest source of corn crops, up to 92% of corns are GMO.
Now what does GMOs have to do with vegan-friendly corns?
Genetic modification of plants aim to make crops less vulnerable to pests and even harsh weather conditions. To do this, genes from other plants or animals are inserted to the target plant’s genes. Yep, you read that right! Animal genes.
In the U.S., field testing for adding jellyfish genes to corns has been approved by the USDA since the early 2000s. There are no recent updates currently available about these trials by Stanford University. However, these are now the possibilities of what several GMO corn crops may contain.
Other genes used in corns include those from hepatitis virus and even humans. The most common ones are from various strains of the Bacillus bacteria.
While not all GMO corn products will contain animal or human genes, for strict vegans, avoiding GMOs will be best. Again, this is only a matter of personal preference, if you’re not as strict as hardcore vegans, this may not be a problem.
Is There A Problem With Corn Syrup? Health Concerns About Corn Syrup Consumption
The health concerns that come with corn syrup consumption stems from 3 things:
1. Corn syrup as a sugar
No matter what the source is, all sugars are bad for health. Whether corn syrup or HFCS, although their sugar compositions are different, both final effects on human health are just as bad.
Some sugar brands, including corn syrups, will market themselves as a healthier option. Even if a sugar is organic, non-GMO, zero calorie, etc., it won’t change the health risks that come with it.
According to Sugar Science, the AHA recommends the following daily limit on sugar intake:
- Men – 9 tsp or 38 grams
- Women – 6 tsp or 25 grams
- Children – 3-6 tsp or 12-25 grams
The problem is, most people consume way above this limit everyday. Oftentimes, you won’t even know it. Can you guess how much sugar an average American consumes everyday? 17 teaspoons a day! That much! Do you count your daily sugar? Maybe you should now.
- Weight gain and obesity
- Insulin resistance and diabetes
- High cholesterol
- Cardiovascular disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Depression of immune system
- High blood pressure levels
- Increase in cancer risk
- Risk of depression
- Acceleration of skin and cellular aging
- Crash in energy
- Fatty liver
- Increase in kidney disease risk
- Dental cavities
- Memory impairment
- Risk of dementia
- Acceleration of cognitive decline
Quite a long list, right? Excessive sugar affects the body both inside and out. These can also be made worse by lack of physical activities and a high fat diet.
2. GMO corns
The prevalence of genetic modification among corn crops especially in the U.S., is a concern for many people. So it’s no surprise that a lot of consumers try to avoid corn products.
The application of genetic engineering in agriculture ultimately aims to produce more corn for consumers. However, this can come with a price.
When trials are done for gene insertions in plants, it is easy to overlook its implications on human health. This is because genetic modification in plants often work more towards making them pest-resistant and more enduring in extreme weathers.
- Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria and endotoxin genes help to create corns that can kill its known pest, the corn borers.
- Genes from Bacillus subtili create corns that can tolerate drought.
In studies done with rats to determine the effects of eating GMO corns, the observations include the following:
- Increase in risk of developing tumors
- Organ damage (especially the kidneys and liver)
- Premature death
- Decrease in fertility
- Disturbance in immune function
There are countries that test GM products for safety before approving its market release. However, these studies are often too short to show significant results.
3. Corn’s phytic acid content
Although most corn varieties are rich in nutrients, it also contains the antinutrient phytate or phytic acid. This plant compound, although an antioxidant, can impair the absorption of other nutrients that are taken with it.
Phytic acid is a naturally occuring compound in plant seeds, grains, and legumes. It is known to inhibit the body from absorbing calcium, iron, and zinc. This is why too much phytic acid may cause deficiencies especially among individuals who do not have a healthy diet.
With corn containing up to 2.2% phytic acid, it is among the list of high-phytate foods. This antinutrient only interferes with nutrients in the same meal, which means it will not affect what you eat after. However, its inclusion in EVERY meal may result to mineral deficiencies over time.
With most processed foods today containing high amounts of corn syrup, you may not even know your meal includes it already. So as much as possible, stick to natural foods only. Avoid any added sugars as well.
BONUS: To learn more about the difference of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, check out the video below!
Getting Off Sugar
How often have you heard people say that sugar is as addictive as cocaine? But unlike cocaine, sugar is legal and you can get it anywhere! Although sugar is of course not a psychoactive compound, it can increase your risk towards many diseases.
Even experts agree that sugar is addictive, and to some extent, even more addictive than cocaine. So if you’re wondering why you find it hard to stop your sweet tooth, that’s the reason. This is because sugars can trigger the release of opioids and dopamine, which incites a pleasurable high.
So how can you cut down, and eventually eliminate sugars? Here are some things you can do:
- Avoid artificial and added sugars at all costs
- When you crave for sweets, eat fruits instead
- When you feel hungry, eat healthy, filling meals instead of junk foods
- Take a hot shower or bath to help stop your cravings
- Go on walks or do exercises to get your body to release endorphins. This happy hormones can turn your cravings off.
- Avoid stress and sleep well
- Avoid getting too hungry
- Think of your craving triggers and avoid them (e.g., seeing your favorite café or bakeshop)
Natural, non-GMO corn syrup is vegan. However, it is essentially just like all other sugars. This means it is not healthy and should only be consumed minimally. With a lot of food products in the market already containing corn syrup, it is best to AVOID its use to avoid overconsumption.
Is there corn syrup in your favorite foods? What do you substitute it with? Let me know on the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this article in your favorite social media platform.