Dextrose: All-American Corn Sugar

September 29, 2010 at 9:32 am 1 comment

Life Magazine, 8 September 1941

“Dextrose helps make candy a delicious food.” The key word here is FOOD: candy isn’t just a treat, it’s actual sustenance. This ad contrasts the old fashioned notions of grandma, who thinks of candy as a simple confection, with the new modern knowledge of nutrition possessed by the younger woman. The new generation knows that:

Candy is a veritable bulwark against between-meal fatigue. Even doctors consider candy a desireable requirement of the daily diet. … The concentrated food-energy of candy is obvious because it is simply a delicious combination of many highly nutritious foods everyone eats every day–chocolate, milk, butter, corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, eggs, fruits and nuts.

And that’s why:

Intelligent health-minded people prefer candy products made with Dextrose because they appreciate its great value as the chief quick energy fuel of the body.  … Whenever you buy a bar or box of candy, look among the ingredients on the wrapper for “Dextrose”: it assures you always of genuine food energy to sustain your body in work or play.

Dextrose is making its debut in ads like this one. American consumers are getting to know this “ALL-AMERICAN SUGAR” which is appearing in a wide variety of familiar foods. This ad copy makes dextrose sound somewhat miraculous: food, but better than food. Among all those candy ingredients, it’s dextrose that you are supposed to look for and demand for real “food energy.” Not sucrose (sugar), not eggs, not milk, not nuts, not chocolate. To today’s consumer, this seems a little fishy. Or better, a little corny.

This ad promoting candy as delicious food appeared as a part of a series produced by the Corn Products Refining Co. promoting their sweetening product derived from corn. Dextrose had been around since the early 1900s, but was pretty much known only to the food and confectionery industry.

According to the Corn Refiners Association’s official history, the corn refining industry was born in 1844 with the development of technology to extract starch from the corn kernel. The principal use of corn starch was: laundry.

But by 1866, someone figured out how to derive dextrose from that corn starch. Something new under the sun: corn sugar (as syrup, or further refined to crystalline dextrose, a technology that arrived in the 1920s). Unlike cane sugar and beet sugar which were extracted from the sweet stalk or bulb, corn sugar was the product of a chemical reaction, an enzymatic transformation of not-sweet laundry starch to sweet syrups and powders.

Dextrose as corn syrup was an important ingredient in its own right. And as crystalline dextrose, it could be substituted for refined beet or cane sugar in some uses. Dextrose was cheaper than regular sugar, so there were some manufacturers who were substituting it on the sly prior to the 1940s. But when WWII food disruptions led to sugar rationing, dextrose suddenly had a new allure.

Chemically, dextrose is identical to glucose. Glucose is the simple sugar from which living cells directly extract energy. Our bodies use glucose immediately as it is absorbed through the blood stream (hence “blood sugar”); other simple sugars, like fructose, have to be metabolized before they become available as fuel. Corn sugar is sometimes called glucose. In fact, when corn sugar, in the form of a syrup, was first introduced as a food ingredient, producers used the term “glucose”: problems with confusion with “glue,” however, led to the new term “corn syrup” in 1914, which is pretty much what we’ve called it ever since. (See Glue-Cose for the whole story.)

But by the 1940s, corn refiners and food producers were using the term dextrose to refer to any kind of sugar derived from corn. In any event, corn sugar, glucose, corn syrup, and dextrose pretty much mean the same thing as far as the chemistry of sugars goes. In many contexts today,  the word glucose is reserved for the sugar that is zooming around in your blood, while the term “dextrose” refers to the corn sugar that is chemically identical but hasn’t entered your blood stream yet.

Confused? It’s confusing. The FDA defines “corn sugar” as a particular chemical [alpha]-D-glucopyranosetates and then notes that this chemical is “commonly called D-glucose or dextrose.”  Dextrose (a.k.a. glucose) is also found in fruits and honey; I’ve seen references to processed sugar from grapes referred to as “grape dextrose.” Fructose is another sugar that is commonly found in fruits and honey. Table sugar is sucrose: a fructose bonded to a glucose. Like I said, it’s confusing. But bear with me. The identity of glucose and dextrose turns out to be the key.

The problem in the 1940s is: how is the corn refining industry going to transform their cheap sugar substitute, something that food processors don’t even want consumers to know they are using, into a desirable commodity? Answer: by using advertising to rebrand Dextrose as the patriotic, scientific, nurturing alternative to that other sweet stuff. Remember how I said that dextrose is glucose, and glucose is the form of sugar directly metabolized by the body? Here’s the way that gets translated into selling dextrose:

Life Magazine, 1 June 1942

The text reads in part:

The chief fuel for bodily activity is a sugar called Dextrose. Dextrose is formed in Nature by the action of sunlight upon plant life. Human life depends on it for energy…. Keep the energy of sunshine in your body. Demand foods “Enriched with Dextrose.”

So according to this ad, dextrose isn’t just an ingredient or a sweetener. It “enriches” the food with the “energy of sunshine.” The funny thing is, dextrose actually is not produced in corn by the sun. Dextrose is the result of lab work performed on corn starches.

You can also notice how utterly nonsensical this idea of “energy” turns out to be. Behind the claim that Dextrose is energy from the sun is simple carbohydrate science. Dextrose is sugar carbohydrate, sugar carbohydrate, like all carbohydrates, is metabolized by the body for energy. All sugars give this “energy,” as do all breads, pastas, apples, bananas, and pickles.

Another thing to notice is the emphasis on nature here (and this is decades before anybody is talking about “natural foods”): no mention of corn refining or enzymatic extraction. The path of dextrose is all natural: is from sun to plant to body. And the baby seals the deal: dextrose is the sugar in infant formula, the food for the beginning of life. If it’s good for babies, how can it be bad?

The sharpest arrow in Corn’s quiver, however, was patriotism. This is during the Second World War, remember. Corn is an American crop. Sugar from Corn is All-American Sugar:

Life Magazine, 9 November 1942

Dextrose is the sugar that comes from American crops, the bounty of American agriculture, the wholesomeness of the American farm. Dextrose might even help America win the war:

We, who must be strong, can build our strength upon the produce of our own farms. For instance, in our native fruits, vegetables and grain, we have an abundant supply of the natural sugar, DEXTROSE, which is food energy in its purest form–energy vital to the toiling, fighting Americans.

This ad doesn’t quite say it, but the contrast with traditional sugar is implicit. Most Americans have associated refined sugar with cane sugar (although most of our sugar actually comes from beets). Cane is refined in the U.S., but the sugar cane is grown in hot, tropical places. The images of sugar cultivation popular in the first part of the twentieth century featured exotic tropical plantations worked by sweaty, dark skinned bodies. In this context, promoting corn sugar as “All-American” is also hinting that the other sugar is not quite so American at all.

In contrast,

Dextrose is an ALL-American sugar, derived from American corn, refined in American factories, distributed by American companies.

Today, the Corn Refiners Association is struggling to re-brand High Fructose Corn Syrup as “corn sugar.” Seems Americans have decided that everything that has gone wrong in the last 30 years is the fault of HFCS, which is a fairly recent invention and reeks of the science lab. Re-branding it as “corn sugar” makes it seem more…natural. How funny to note that 70 years ago, corn was fighting pretty much the same battle to have sugar derived from corn accepted as a natural and wholesome food ingredient.

More Dextrose: Candy makers also promoted Dextrose in the 1940s as a benefit of their candy products, as you can read about in my previous post, Candy and Corn: Rich in Dextrose!

Entry filed under: Ingredients, Marketing, WWII to 1960s. Tags: , , .

Candy and Corn: “Rich in Dextrose!” Get Your Own Tootsie!

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

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