High-Fructose Corn Syrup Goes DIY

One artist is giving the hated sweetener the Brooklyn treatment.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

In an Atlantic Wire story from April titled “Artisanal Won’t Die,” Jen Doll writes of a future when “we’ll have stopped needing to denote that anything is artisanal because the only oddity worth mentioning is the product that is not artisanal—i.e., that which is produced ‘in enormous quantities available for all often using totally newfangled and post-modern methods.’ ”

You would think that high-fructose corn syrup, which is transported in 250,000-gallon tanks that can be strung along in a line of 100 behind a single locomotive, would surely count as one of those non-artisanal items. But thanks to one New York artist, the sweetener is now getting an artisanal treatment too.

The scourge of health-conscious mothers, nutritionists and Michael Bloomberg, high-fructose corn syrup worms its way into everything from soda and candy to ketchup and canned soup. But what is usually thought of as a single ingredient is in fact made up of a number of components, an ingredient list that includes, in addition to corn, sulfuric acid, glucose isomerase, alpha amylase, glucose amylase and xylose.

Researching those ingredients—finding out the particular chemicals and enzymes used, figuring out where to buy them, and learning how to use them to break down the starch in Yellow Dent #2 corn into fructose—was the challenge undertook by artist Maya Weinstien, a recent grad of the design and technology graduate program at Parson’s.

Her DIY corn syrup, packaged in a handmade wooden box, may be disguised in the aesthetics and ethos of artisanal Brooklyn, but the project is more a critique of industrialized food than anything else, says Weinstein, who cops to being an obsessive label reader.

“I think [industrial food ingredients] are really interesting because they’re everywhere—they’re what people eat and they’re what people rely on for their diet,” she tells TakePart. “But we don’t know what all of these ingredients are.”

The HFCS investigation began when she was working on a piece that would visualize all of the ingredients used to make a quintessentially American food: Heinz 57 ketchup. “I realized the first ingredient was high-fructose corn syrup,” Weinstein says, “and I realized that I couldn’t find it anywhere—I couldn’t buy it at a store.” Indeed, high-fructose corn syrup is by no means the same thing as the bottle of Karo you can pick up in the supermarket, which only contains glucose sugar. Most retailers who stock high-fructose corn syrup sell it in 55-gallon drums—it’s an industrial product, not one that’s sold in the baking aisle.

Working off of a recipe provided by the directors of the documentary King Corn, Weinstein began purchasing ingredients from companies like Hampton Research (“Solution for Crystal Growth”) and cooking up syrup. According to Corn.org, a site funded by the Corn Refiner’s Association, the industrial process goes something like this:

Starch, suspended in water, is liquefied in the presence of acid and/or enzymes that convert the starch to a low-glucose solution. Treatment with another enzyme continues the conversion process. Throughout the process, refiners can halt acid or enzyme actions at key points to produce the right mixture of sugars like glucose and maltose for syrups to meet different needs. In some syrups, the conversion of starch to sugars is halted at an early stage to produce low-to-medium sweetness syrups. In others, the conversion is allowed to proceed until the syrup is nearly all glucose. The syrup is refined in filters, centrifuges, and ion-exchange columns, and excess water is evaporated. Syrups are sold directly, crystallized into pure glucose, or processed further to create high fructose corn syrup.

The concept may be simple enough—break down starches into sweeter, more concentrated sugars—but Weinstien admits that adapting the King Corn recipe took some trial and error. “I definitely had a couple of batches that didn’t taste sweet—they just tasted kind of dull,” she says of the less successful efforts. But spending time with the ingredients and the process hasn’t domesticated the industrial product for Weinstein—it’s as menacing a presence in her kitchen as it is on an ingredient label.

There’s the sulfuric acid, for one, which has to be handled with heavy-duty rubber gloves, and a particularly ominous enzyme, glucose isomerase, which Weinstein says, “still kind of freaks me out.” The enzyme is genetically engineered from the microorganism Streptomyces. “It’s created in a lab and it’s very expensive and it’s just created for high-fructose corn syrup—they don’t make it for anything else.”

Now that her high-fructose corn syrup recipe is refined, Weinstein had designs on re-creating other common processed-foods ingredients, like enriched white flour, MSG and red dye #40. But without a university mailing address to ship industrial chemicals to (she just graduated), which the red dye requires in spades, she may have to find a lab or other facility to work out of.

Having seen what goes into making one industrial food ingredient, Weinstein says, “I think that there must be so much more to the other ingredients we’re seeing. There’s something so interesting about that process of making a food in the lab. It’s so strange and odd, and it gives you a better sense of what it is and how it affects our food supply.”

Still: DIY high-fructose corn syrup—it’s so, so Brooklyn.

“I live in Brooklyn,” Weinstein acknowledges, “and I love the handmade and artisanal kind of vibe. But it’s almost like a Portlandia jab at it—you get it but you also kind of roll your eyes at it. It was meant to be a little funny and a little satirical in that sense. Because I am a part of it, but I can also kind of make fun of it.”

But as Benjamin Wallace’s New York story about the artisanal economy in Brooklyn points out, artificial sweetener is central to the borough’s most successful food business. Cumberland Packing produces 55 million packets of sweetener a year—from the iconic pink Sweet’N Lows to Sugar in the Raw, Stevia in the Raw, Agave in the Raw and more. Cumberland Packing “is what a small Brooklyn startup looks like after 65 years of growth,” writes Wallace.

So maybe Weinstein’s project resonates as a critique of industrialized food far better than of Brooklyn’s food scene. But if you do want to see DIY high-fructose corn syrup kits for sale in Williamsburg, Weinstein is putting together a Kickstarter campaign to fund production and distribution.

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