Corn Into Candy: 1918
Today corn syrup is everywhere, especially that bugaboo, high fructose corn syrup. HFCS has the same balance of fructose and glucose as table sugar, but is immensely cheaper and so immensely more attractive to profit-seeking food processors.
Back in the early 1900s, HFCS was unknown, but corn was a huge product. Most corn went to animal feed. But war related food shortages suddenly brought corn to center stage.
Sugar shortages were impacting households as well as food makers by the end of 1917. In January 1918, industry watchers predicted that sugar use would be restricted to something like 90 percent of what was available the previous year. But candy was ready.
Walter Hughes, the secretary of the National Confectioners Association, got himself appointed to the Sugar Division of the U.S. Food Administration. When sugar conservation began to appear necessary, the candy industry had a seat at the table and made sure that candy was recognized as having food value and as being important to public morale.
And it was a good move. Candy, and other “non-essential” foods like ice cream and soda, were allotted 80 percent of their previous usages when the Food Administration began strict rationing in May 1918.
It was a serious reduction, to be sure. But candy makers had already begun working around the shortages with new formulas and new concoctions that would minimize the need for sugar. The obvious work-around was another ingredient that was sweet and tasteless: corn syrup.
‘War candies,’ containing less sugar and more corn syrup can be made widely popular. If you are going to turn out ‘war candies’ give them snappy war names and watch the result. You are going to save sugar for other purposes and in doing so disarm the current assertion that ‘candy is a luxury.’
The war was good news for corn syrup. In the early 1900s, corn syrup had been called “glucose,” and was frequently vilified as an “adulterant,” some bad stuff contaminating the candy. Sometimes this was because the accuser didn’t know what glucose actually was. But often enough, criticisms about glucose in candy were directed at new-fangled ingredients and techniques that made people suspicious. (See my post Glue-Cose for more)
The war changed all that. Now corn syrup was patriotic. Candy makers could boast that their confections were sweetened without taking from the sugar stores.
This ad for “War Special” Candies from George Close ran in Confectioners Journal in January 1918, when sugar is become tight but not yet officially rationed. Close promotes the candies as both patriotic and good business:
“By pushing these specialties you are not only performing a patriotic duty in conserving sugar, but at the same time are helping yourself and your customers to maintain a normal volume of business.”
Maltose, molasses and honey could also be used as alternative sweeteners, but corn syrup as a sugar substitute was the easiest, the most abundant, and had no taste. New formulas for things like gum drops and suckers made use of higher portions of corn syrup. And new kinds of candy ingredients using no sugar at all came on the scene: “creme” fillings and caramel bases made of corn syrup and milk products were increasingly used, as well as corn-syrup based candy coatings.
Corn syrup today is seen as cheap and inferior. But candy makers using corn syrup in 1918 were innovators responding to war-time shortages. Some Americans looked at their empty sugar bowls and pointed the finger at candy. Shut down the candy factories, they shouted, and give us back our sugar! Candy fought back to show that candy could be good and sweet, and still not use more than four percent of the total sugar output. Corn syrup kept candy in business during the shortage years, and corn syrup kept Americans eating candy.