In 1841, Orlando Jones patented, a process that separated corn starch from kernels in what is known as wet milling. One year later, Thomas Kingford opened the first commercial wet milling plant in the States. Corn, an agricultural product dating back at least 6,000 years to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, was a natural fit for this process given its abundance. It would take another two decades for chemists to realizes corn starch could be used as a sweetener.
Beginning in 1864, the process of producing corn syrup remained relatively the same for a century. Then, in 1967 an enzyme conversion method was created to commercialize the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There are three processes involved:
- Removing starch from dried, shelled yellow #2 dent corn
- Converting this starch into syrup through acid hydrolysis
- Converting this syrup into high fructose corn syrup, in which dextrose sugars are converted into sweeter fructose sugars
On its own, corn syrup is not nearly as sweet as cane or beet sugar, which is why this cheaper alternative, HFCS, was invented. While the “high” part makes it sound like an anomaly in the sweetener world, most sugars contain 50 percent fructose. HFCS contains 55 percent.
Sugar is sugar is sugar, regardless of how soda manufacturers label their sweetly saturated beverages as being the “healthy option” for containing “real” sugar. That said, corn’s meteoric rise to the top of the sweetener list has as much to do with economics as nutritional value, of which there is little. The crop is heavily subsidized — between 1995 and 2010, corn was one of seven crops receiving $170 billion from the federal government.
And yet little of that corn actually feeds us: 40 percent is used for ethanol production, 36 percent as animal feed (which, in a sense, does end up feeding us). Even then, we utilize startlingly little of the remaining 24 percent.
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