Dextrose: All-American Corn Sugar

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!

September 29, 2010 at 9:32 am 1 comment

Candy and Corn: “Rich in Dextrose!”

In the department of “virtue out of necessity,” I bring you the story of DEXTROSE.

Dextrose candy: doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. In fact, if you don’t know what dextrose is, which I confess I didn’t until I started Candy Professor, it doesn’t even sound edible! But for most candy-buying and eating purposes, dextrose is just another kind of sugar that can be used for particular candy effects. In particular, “compressed dextrose” is the technical term candy people use to describe the powdery hard candies: Altoids, Smarties, candy necklaces, and all those Made-in-China candy trinkets like robot puzzles and building blocks that you can eat when you’re done.

But still, what is dextrose?  Dextrose is sugar produced from corn. Today is is one of many many kinds of sugars that food processors can use for various effects. Like compressing it to make candy necklaces. But in the 1930s and 1940s, dextrose was the major competitor and substitute for the more traditional refined sugars from beet and cane.

Three Ears of Corn

Americans did not automatically embrace sugar from corn. As we can see today in the backlash against high fructose corn syrup, American consumers are suspicious of the whole corn refining process. In my next post, I’ll take a look at the marketing materials produced by the Corn Refiners Association back in the 1940s to sell Americans on this new kind of sugar. The story I want to tell today is about dextrose and candy:  how candy makers took a problem, sugar shortages, and turned it into a big candy plus.

As WWII disrupted the world food supply, cane and beet sugar prices were rising and sugar shortages seemed likely. But sugar made from corn was not affected. So food processors began looking for ways to use corn sugar in the place of more expensive beet and cane sugar.

Beet and cane sugar processors were not happy about this; in 1940 they sued to force peach canners to identify dextrose as an ingredient when they used it as a sugar substitute. This lawsuit shows how the public acceptance of dextrose was in transition; the department of Agriculture had allowed use of dextrose without disclosure on the grounds that it was not an injurious ingredient. But the beet and cane sugar refiners seemed to think that peach canners might be less likely to substitute dextrose if they had to claim it on the label.

Sweet is sweet, but the sugars are slightly different. Cane sugar and beet sugar, you may recall, are “disaccharides”: they combine glucose, which our body uses directly, and fructose, which is first metabolized by the liver. Corn sugar, called dextrose in processing uses, is virtually all glucose.

If you had to claim “dextrose” as an ingredient, it might turn consumers off. After all, what exactly was this dextrose to the average American? It sounds kind of chemical-ish. But instead of “cheap sugar substitute,” what if you could sell it as a miracle food? And so, dextrose stormed the market as: PURE ENERGY!

Curtiss Candies, the manufacturer of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger bars, put serious money into advertisements that boasted that the candy was “rich in dextrose, the sugar your body needs for energy”:

Life Magazine, 13 Nov 1939 (detail)

See the little guy on the side? He’s sort of the candy bar cheerleader, and in the 1939 wrapper he’s saying “Slice and Serve for All Occassions.” Fancy!

Soon, though, the cheerleader had a new name: N.R.G. (get it, energy!).  And a new cheer: “Rich in Dextrose.” In this 1940 ad, little N.R.G. appears as a runner, ready to win the race. The text next to the runner explains:

By actual energy tests, a 150-lb athlete can run almost 4 miles at a speed of more than 5 m.p.h. on the FOOD ENERGY contained in one 5c bar of delicious Baby Ruth candy.

And even though “dextrose” sounds like a pitch for the newest scientific views, the strawberries and the ad copy reassure us that dextrose is all natural and all good.

Life Magazine, 11 March 1940

And here’s N.R.G. in 1942: Baby Ruth gives food energy to soldiers overseas and office workers at home. And what about  that mama with the little baby? Dextrose is “an essential in infant feeding.” Is that candy bar for hungry mom, or sweet-loving baby?

Life Magazine, 9 Nov 1942

More posts on sugar, corn and candy:

September 24, 2010 at 10:49 am 2 comments

Keep Slim and Trim with Domino: Sugar Advertising in the 1950s

Of course you know Domino sugar. It’s those little white packets next to the NutraSweet and Equal in the glass tray at the diner. The name “Domino” was coined in the early 190o’s, after the ancestor to the sugar packet: the sugar cube. The trademark name for an otherwise unremarkable commodity kept Domino, and its manufacturer, the American Sugar Refining Company, out at the head of the sugar pack through the 19th century. Today, the Domino Sugar  Corp. has no real rivals in the field of refined sugar, according to the experts at the International Directory of Company Histories (Domino history reproduced at No, the real competition to Domino Sugar is not sugar at all. Analysts warn: “the trend toward non-caloric artificial sweeteners has started to cut into the firm’s profits.”

I laughed when I read this. The sugar industry has been grappling with how to sell its product to “diet conscious consumers” for 60 years. And as I described in previous posts, the explosion of artificial sweeteners in the 1950s challenged the sugar producers and the candy industry alike. (See especially The Plague of Overweight and  1954 Fake Sugar Smack Down)

Back in the early 1900s, the American Sugar Refining Company dominated the American refined sugar market. It was the first to successfully apply a branding strategy to sugar: not just sugar but DOMINO sugar. Sugar demand and sugar consumption exploded in the 1920s and 1930s. After the painful (and, due to sugar shortages and rationing, much less sweet) war years (1942-1945), Domino was back in full force, feeding the nation’s demand for sugary sweets to the tune of something like $180 million in annual sales.

But their was a cloud on the sugar horizon. A big, fat cloud. After a decade of post-war binging, America was feeling the effects. “Overweight” was a national health crisis. Everyone was reducing. No fattening sugar!

What’s  a fattening sugar producer to do? Domino had one idea: prove that sugar isn’t fattening.

Life Magazine, 20 April 1953

Counting calories these days? You should know that generous amounts of Domino’s Granulated Sugar, used in your favorite foods and beverages, contain fewer calories than usual servings of many foods regularly included in reducing diets.

By 1955, this campaign had evolved from “sugar has fewer calories than you think” to “sugar is for reducing”. the message in this ad, a revision of the 1953 ad above, suggests that heaping three spoons of sugar into your coffee is a better strategy for weight loss than munching on an apple:

Life Magazine, 3 October 1955

And it wasn’t just apples that dieters might want to reconsider. From the same ad series

The final piece of this marketing campaign was this little cookbook for the “slim and trim”:

America Sugar promoted this booklet as

the safe, sure way to lose weight without losing pep or giving up sugar! … It’s Domino’s effort to put SUGAR–and sugar-containing foods and beverages–back in Reducing Diets…where they belong! (ad to the trade in Confectioners Journal, April 1955 p 9)

Domino Sugar is going through some changes today. Heard of the Domino Sugar Building on the Williamsburg waterfront? The American Sugar Refining Company built its first sugar refining plant here in my native Brooklyn,. It shut down in 2004 (and will likely be reborn as luxury condos, what else), but this is what it looked like in the late days:

And sugar? Domino is branching out in new directions. They have developed a perplexing array of products for food processing applications known as “non-sweet sugars”: such oxymorons are evidently useful in things like sports drinks which are sweet but not so sweet, and also in non-fat frostings, frozen desserts and salad dressings where the non-sweet sugar takes the place of some of the fat. The company has also teamed up with erstwhile enemy NutraSweet to develop and market…artificial sweeteners.

See my related posts on candy, calorie counting, sugar and artificial sweeteners:

September 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Candy Currency

Many years ago, back before the EU and the Euro and the whole globalization thing, I was tootling around in Europe. In my admittedly hazy recollection, French francs were 6 to the dollar, German marks were 2 to the dollar, and Italian lire were something like 1,000 to the dollar.

In the decades after WWII, Italy had some serious money problems: bills with so many zeros they make your eyes swim. And small change? It was just too crazy. The smallest bill was 500 lira. 5 lira coins and 10 lira coins, valued at less than a penny, were hardly worth the trouble, but many kinds of purchases ended up with these small amounts in play. The mint couldn’t keep enough coins in circulation to meet the need for small shops. So most of the time, when you went to buy groceries or a pack of kleenex or a newspaper, you’d pay with a bill and get your change in, well, stuff. I got bandaids once, and a pencil another time. But the most popular alternative was candy.

This seemed quaint and charming to me at the time,  a happy traveler just passing through. But there were problems. Because it turns out that although the shop can give you candy as change, they are unlikely to accept candy as credit toward the purchase of something else.  Modern economies depend on MONEY as a single currency of exchange in every direction. Candy just doesn’t do.

Well, Italy solved its problem when everybody joined the Union and the Euro took the place of their desperate currency in 2002.  But it turns out that the candy money problem pops up in other places as well.

For example: in Indonesia, a recent study revealed that 10 percent of the country’s retailers are giving change in candy. This has evidently been a long standing problem. In  July, the retailers association agreed to stop doing the candy thing, and use only coins. The government promised to make more coins so no one would have the excuse of coin shortage. But still, the candy rules the cash register. The shop keepers claim they are charged a 1 percent premium by the banks for stocking change, so they prefer using candy.

Consumer advocates advise paying with the exact amount to avoid the candy change trap. No representatives of candy-lovers were interviewed as part of the study, but I suspect at least one group of consumers has been happy with the current arrangement:  the kids sent to the store to pick up some items for Mama need make no excuses when they come home with a fist full of candy sticks on the side.

Read the story: Irvan Tisnabuti, “Many ‘Naughty’ Indonesian Retailers Still Make Change in Candy” Jakarta Globe Sept 12, 2010 You can read a description of the Italian problem in a Life Magazine article from 1971, “The Licorice Lira Problem” and more in  “Numismatics on the Autostrada” in Texas Monthly, 1975.

September 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm 2 comments

“Corn Sugar” and High Fructose Corn Syrup

On September 14, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the F.D.A. to allow high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to be sold as “corn sugar.” Since HFCS has the same amount of fructose as table sugar, the CRA argues that “corn sugar” is a less confusing name. And it probably also hopes that “corn syrup” will avoid some of the bad press that HFCS has been getting. For a cut-to-the-chase analysis of what’s really going on, Marion Nestle at is of course indispensable. Tara Parker-Pope at The New York Times also has written a useful article on the topic.

The emergence of corn syrup as an alternative to sugar, and its uses in the candy industry, provide a quite interesting context for this latest attempt to blur the lines between corn products and more traditional sugar (although scientists and nutritionists insist that the glucose and fructose are exactly the same, and the source really doesn’t matter). But corn is a powerful symbol in American history, and sugar is too. Here’s a round up of relevant previous posts, a little of the larger story that I have uncovered in my Candy Professor research:

September 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm Leave a comment

Coming Soon: Glow in the Dark Chocolate

Mars, Inc. announces today that its researchers have sucessfully decoded the genome for chocolate (specifically, the Theobroma cacao tree). This gives Mars an important edge in bragging rights over rival Hershey, who had sponsored a French government team of scientists team in a head to head race to sequence the DNA of the cocoa bean. Team Hershey isn’t quite finished yet, but promises that their report will be just as good.

You may be surprised to learn that Mars has a huge research arm dedicated to all things chocolate in support of its quest for global candy domination. Mars, Inc. is a closely held private company famous for its secretiveness and inaccessibly, so it’s  hard to know just what the company is up to. But Mars seems to have an entire division dedicated to speculative chocolate pursuits; Howard Yana-Shapiro is the “global director of plant science and external research” at Mars. And Mars has other intellectual interests. Mars collaborates with UC Davis to sponsor the “Chocolate History Group.” In 2009, Mars sponsored the publication of Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage (Wiley) featuring 57 scholarly essays by 100 experts documenting and analyzing the history and culture of chocolate.

The Mars scientists will make their genome sequence public and prohibit restrictive patents based on the genetic data. So this new science is all for the public good: it may lead to more disease resistant trees, higher yields, better tasting chocolate.  One area researchers are particularly interested in is flavonoids, chemicals found in chocolate that are believed to have important heath benefits. So we may be seeing genetically modified, flavonoid boosted “neutraceutical” chocolate in the future, tasty medicine available without a prescription.

But I think these utilitarian ideas of  enhancing chocolate betray a lack of imagination. Once you start messing around with the genome, why stick to such boring stuff as flavor and flavonoids? Scientists have isolated the DNA code that makes certain jellyfish flouresce, and transferred it to mice. But why not glow in the dark chocolate? Think how that would revolutionize late night snacking.  And once you do that, you could go farther: how about using the gene that makes certain bacteria eat oil to create a chocolate bar the dissolves your belly fat? Or how about inserting the animal gene that makes hair grow: watch out, Rogaine! Of course, you’d have to be careful with that one, since the last thing anyone wants is a chocolate bar that grows hair.

More at the New York Times: Andrew Pollack, Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA (15 Sept 2010)

September 15, 2010 at 10:45 am 4 comments

Candy Box Insert Promotes Weight Loss, 1954

As sugar goes, so goes candy. When artificial sweeteners moved from the nutritional fringes to the dietary mainstream in the 1950s, the sugar producers and the candy industry realized quickly that their fates were intertwined.

Sugar Information Inc. had one idea for helping candy keep its market. In 1954 the industry group produced a little pamphlet called “Memo to Dieters.”

At about 3 inches square, it was the perfect size to slip into a box of chocolates or a sack of sweets. The publication was designed to give prominent display to the name of the candy brand, and it featured the new sugar message that sugar and candy were weight loss aids:

New medical research finding now confirm that you can have your sweets and your waistline too. … Sugar before meals raises your blood sugar level and reduces your appetite. … And don’t forget that candy is also a wonderful source of quick energy. … So don’t be misled into thinking candy is necessarily fattening. Candy can actually be effective in helping you to reduce.

My favorite part of this  little pamphlet is the new twist on an old candy marketing strategy. Back in the ‘teens, the National Confectioners Association came up with a punchy candy slogan that captured the aspirations of candy makers to move their product from the category of luxury and treat to the category of everyday purchase: Candy is Good Food. Eat Some Everyday.

In the Sugar Industries insert, we get a new twist on the theme: Candy is a delicious food, eat some every day to help your diet work.

The shift from the old slogan to the new diet variation suggests a new role for candy. The old slogan posed candy as another kind of food, just as good as meat and fruit. All foods are for energy, and candy gives you energy too. The new slogan says candy will “help your diet work”: that is, candy will help you eat less of all the other kinds of food that are making you fat. Food is fattening, and candy is the solution. Candy is food, and better than food.

Jump forward 60 years, and you are in CVS, choosing between the SlimFast bar, the Full Bar, and the ThinkThin bar. Eat more candy, lose more weight.

For the backstory on artificial sweeteners in 1954 and the impact on sugar marketing, see the first two posts below. You can read more about the “candy is good food” idea in the other posts listed below.

Source: Confectioners Journal, July 1954, p. 32

September 13, 2010 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

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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.

(C) Samira Kawash

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