“Korn” Syrup And The Real Thing

January 13, 2005

As we discussed in the previous article of Food for Thought “sugar” is one of the basic components of food. It is the fuel which the body burns for energy, and all complex carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes must first be converted into sugar through digestion before they can be metabolized. Early sources of sugar were honey and dates, although cane sugar is the subject of much discussion as far back as the Rishonim concerning its appropriate brachah (blessing).

However, sugar remained a luxury until the 17th century when commercial production of sugar from sugar cane and beet was developed. Napoleon built sugar refineries throughout Europe in the hope of placating his empire in the face of the British blockade. [He even awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour to Benjamin Delessert for perfecting a process of producing white sugar from sugar beets.] Given the pervasiveness of sugar in the processed foods we eat — including those for Pesach — this article discusses the Kashrus aspects of sugars. As we shall see, things are not always as they seem. “Korn” can be true Chometz and “malto-dextrins” may be no more of a concern than Kitniyot.

When we use the term sugar, we are usually referring to sucrose (see last month’s article for a discussion of the different types of sugar). Commercially, sucrose is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets. However, sucrose was first identified in grapes, and it is sometimes still referred to as “grape sugar”. In most cases this nomenclature is not indicative of the source of the sucrose, merely a name given it based upon historical imperative. It should be noted, however, that due to market distortions in the price of sugar and grape juice in some countries, grape juice that cannot be sold in any other fashion may be converted into sucrose and sold as common sugar.

The processing of sugar involves extracting the juice from the cane or beet, concentrating it, and crystallizing the crude sucrose crystals. The sucrose exists naturally in the plant — there is no conversion of raw materials into sugar. This process yields crude sugar and molasses. [Molasses is a sugar syrup containing about 50% sugar as well as other impurities. It is not economical to remove this sugar, and the spent molasses is sold for various purposes including fermentation into rum (alcohol) and citric acid.] The crude sugar crystal is called brown sugar, and still contains significant amounts of impurities. This sugar is then refined to remove these residual impurities to yield white sugar. We should note that the terms refining and impurities are somewhat of a misnomer. We usually look to food as a source of balanced nutrition, and crude sugar has many nutritious components in addition to sucrose. The consumer has historically expressed an esthetic preference for white sugar which has been stripped (refined) of these nutrients. This has changed somewhat today, however, with “health conscious” consumers often seeking “natural” sugar which is less refined.

Another major sugar used in food preparation is glucose. [Glucose is also known by its chemical name dextrose, a term derived from the fact that its crystal structure will deflect polarized light to the right (from the Latin dexter, meaning “right” ). Fructose is also called levulose, because it will deflect light to the left (from the Latin laevus, meaning “left” ).] Glucose is usually derived through the hydrolysis of starch. A starch molecule consists of a long chain of glucose molecules linked together, and glucose is obtained by cleaving individual glucose molecules from the starch. This hydrolysis can be done by adding acids or using amylase enzymes. The United States enjoys an abundance of corn (maize), and historically all glucose syrup manufactured in the United States comes from corn starch. This has led to the common use of the term “corn syrup” when referring to glucose syrup, and for this reason glucose and malto-dextrins produced in the United States can be considered purely ,uhbye. [Indeed, the OU has made arrangements with all domestic corn syrup manufacturers to ensure that even the enzymes used in such products are Chometz-free.] Incidentally, “malto-dextrin” is unrelated to “malt”, and is not inherently Chometz. The product is similar to glucose syrup, except that the hydrolysis is not complete; the starch molecule is broken into smaller units but not into individual glucose molecules. Interestingly, though, the terminology is related to malt. Malt is produced by soaking barley in water and allowing it to germinate. The germ then produces a maltase enzyme, which cleaves the barley starch into units of two glucoses called maltose. Since maltose is a sugar made of multiple glucoses, the term malt is used together with the word dextrin (referring to longer chains of glucoses) — malto-dextrin. Since all American maltodextrin is made from corn starch, it is not Chametz. On the other hand, maltose syrup, even in the United States, may be Chametz . The maltase enzyme used to produce maltose is often an extract from germinating barley and would be considered a Davar Ha-Ma’amid of Chametz even if the starch were corn.

At this point, a clarification of the term “corn” is appropriate. “Chometz” is defined as any of the five types of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) which has begun to ferment. Maize, or “corn”, is definitely not from this group and cannot become Chametz. However, the word “Korn” in German refers to grain, not maize, and the old English word “corn” follows this usage. Indeed, old English translations of vgrp’s insomniac inspirations refer to “seven sheaves of corn”. Maize is native to the New World, and Columbus had not yet discovered America during the time of vgrp. Clearly, Pharaoh was not dreaming of corn on the cob; the “corn” to which he referred was one of the five types of grain. Yiddish speakers are especially prone to confusion, since they often use the term “Korn” to refer to grain.

While the etymology of the word corn may be of no more than passing interest, the possible Chametz status of Korn syrup is not. In many European countries and Australia, glucose syrup is routinely made from wheat or barley starch, and is Chometz Gamur. Even glucose made from maize can have a Chashash Chometz, in that the enzymes used to make them may be grown on Chometz glucose. It is important to be aware of this concern, since the United States — even with all of its corn — is no longer immune from this concern. The world is becoming a single market, and specialty glucose, starch, and maltodextrin products are making their way into the U.S. market, albeit in relatively small quantities. Fortunately, it is not economical to import conventional corn syrups.

Another commonly used sugar is fructose. While technically fruit sugar, it is prepared commercially by conversion from glucose through the use of a glucose isomerase enzyme. The significance of fructose is due to the fact that the various sugars have different physical and chemical properties. While all monosaccharides have the same caloric value, some taste more sweet than others. In determining the relative perceived sweetness of sugars, a scale has been devised with sucrose having a value of 1. Glucose has a value of 0.6, while fructose has a value of 1.6 on this scale. The source of these sugars is irrelevant to their sweetness, but can be a major factor in their price.

The United States has an indigenous sugar industry (sugar cane based in Florida and Louisiana and sugar beet in Minnesota and North Dakota). In order to protect the domestic sugar industry, imported sugar is subject to a quota. As a result, the price of sugar in the United States is significantly higher than the “world” price. [It is interesting to note that allocation of this quota has historically been a tool of U.S. foreign policy. One of the first actions signaling U.S. displeasure with Fidel Castro’s new government in Cuba was the elimination of the Cuban sugar allocation.] Corn based sweeteners are much less expensive, but since they were nominally glucose — and therefore not as sweet as liquid sugar — they were not suitable as a replacement for higher priced sugar.

In the 1970’s, however, the corn syrup manufacturers perfected the technology to convert glucose into fructose. By mixing glucose and fructose together, they created a product called High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which quickly replaced virtually all of the liquid sugar used in soft drinks in the United States. [Although liquid fructose is sweeter than liquid sugar — and could theoretically be used to make a soda with fewer calories — the syrup manufacturers elected to dilute the fructose with glucose so that HFCS would have the same sweetening power as liquid sugar. This allows soda manufacturers to use the two products interchangeably, with the catchall ingredient statement of “Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup”.] However, although domestic HFCS may not be Chametz, it is still Kitniyot – and the Pesach world would be without a significant amount of company if soft drinks only contained HFCS. Fortunately, this is the Pesach generation, and the major soft drink manufacturers make special productions of the world’s favorite beverages for Pesach (un-Kitniyos) the old fashioned way — they use liquid sugar (even though the label may state “Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup” ). In more ways than one, Pesach really does herald the Real Thing!