Posts tagged ‘corn’

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.’

Candy makers wanted to be seen doing their part for the war effort. Candy using less sugar meant more sugar for the war. Americans could enjoy their candy, and support their troops as well.

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.

April 16, 2010 at 8:41 am 3 comments

Corn People: How It Started

Close-up of a teenage girl (15-17) holding a corncob in front of her face

If you’ve been following the food news, you probably know by now: we are corn. Just about every item in the meat and dairy cases, just about every ingredient in processed food, somehow begins as corn in the corn field. This is not obvious from the mind-boggling array of goods on display at your local grocery.

Man spilling cornflakes

The corn-ification of our food supply is perhaps the most significant change in the U.S. food scene in the last hundred years. We mostly think of this as a consequence of “industrial food”: bigger and bigger food processors squeezing more and more profit out of less and less input.That’s definitely the story of the twentieth century, not just for food but for just about every commodity. Here’s an interesting twist, though: what set it all in motion wasn’t just greedy agri-business.

Corn used to be just for animals to eat. The reason humans started eating more and more corn, and more and more processed corn products, was because of the U.S. Government. Or you could even say it was because of Germany. Or imperialism. Or the ambition and folly that drives humans to war.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to the candy part. But to understand what happened to candy, you have to understand what happened to food more generally. And to understand that, you have to go back to the first World War, back to 1916.

Ironically, the stage was set for the corn take over by some very charitable motivations. It was the start of World War I. We hadn’t committed to fight yet, but our allies in England and France and Italy were under attack, and hurting. Europe was experiencing terrible food shortages, and the U.S. was at the ready to help with the bounty of amazing agricultural resources.

But by 1918, the American agricultural surplus was gone, and the U.S. had joined the war. Wheat in particular was in short supply, due to poor crops in 1917. Lower food harvests combined with desperate appeals from overseas inspired the U.S. Food Administration to launch a campaign for voluntary reductions in wheat consumption. Instead of wheat, Americans could eat corn.

There was plenty of corn to be had. The crop in 1917 was more than 3 billion bushels, and only six percent of that crop was normally used for human consumption, the rest going to feed cattle and livestock. But Americans weren’t accustomed to eating corn.

In the spring of 1917 and then in an expanded version in 1918 the American Museum of Natural History put on a Food Conservation Exhibition which aimed both to educate the public about proper nutrition and to support the war through encouraging food conservation. The exhibit was extremely successful in New York, where it traveled to various schools and civic centers through late 1917 and early 1918. It was praised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “the best food exhibit yet prepared,” and was widely emulated by other museums around the nation.

Corn wasn’t part of the original plan for the exhibit cooked up in 1915. But by 1918, Americans needed to  know that corn was the food of choice for patriotic citizens supporting the war effort:

The value to the country of the corn crop is being emphasized in the food exhibit in the foyer of the Museum by presenting scores of ways in which this chief of American cereals may be used in the home. The Corn Products Refining Company has presented to the Museum twenty-two products made from corn. Among these are various starches used for jellies, puddings, pie filling, and sauces; the syrups and sugars for confectionery, preserves, jams, and jellies; and the oils used for general cooking, pastry, and salads. Great quantities of gluten and oil cake, besides corn meal, are used for feeding cattle, thus indirectly contributing to our food supply. Aside from their food value, corn products have a large place in the arts and industries. From corn oil are made leather, rubber, paints, and varnishes; the starches are used for laundry purposes, for ‘sizes’ in textile and paper industries, and for soaps an adhesives; the syrups and sugars are used in tanning, in shoe polishes, hair tonics, chewing tobacco, and in the manufacture of lactic acid and vinegar. (Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420)

Perhaps the multiple forms of corn would have eventually insinuated their way into American life anyway. The War gave corn an air of necessity and of patriotism. Corn was a good choice, corn was helping America and its Allies in the war effort.

Corn meal could take the place of wheat in the nation’s bakeries and bread baskets. In the words of Professor Graham Lusk, a food expert at Cornell University who advised on the U.S. food program as well as the AMNH Food Exhibit, “corn bread became the bread of every patriotic citizen.”

And what about candy? Sugar was in short supply and everybody, including the candy industry, was conserving.  Corn had a solution there as well, a way to keep the candy coming, just as sweet: corn syrup.

In my next post, I’ll tell you more about how the WWI food shortages and rationing programs created modern candy.

Sources: The quote about corn at the exhibit is from Am Mus Journal Oct 1917 p. 420; the quote from Graham Lusk is from Lusk, “The Food Supply of our Allies,”  Am Mus Journal 18.8 Dec 1918: 629-635; quote on p. 630; the quote regarding the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is from Am Mus Journal Nov. 1918 p. 623. Accounts of the Food Exhibit can be found in the Annual Reports for the American Museum of Natural History for 1917 through 1925. I consulted correspondence and clippings relating to the Food Exhibit at the AMNH Archives; my thanks to librarian Mai Qamaran for her assistance in locating relevant materials. As general background, Michael Pollan describes the ubiquity of corn in our diet in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an excellent place to start one’s food re-education.

Images: Corn: PicApp, AMNH image: Fusionpanda on Flikr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fusionpanda/ / CC BY-NC 2.0

April 14, 2010 at 8:28 am 5 comments


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

All written contents protected by copyright. Except where noted, Candy Professor is my original research, based on archives, journals, magazines, newspapers, and other historical artifacts. You do not have permission to copy or re-post my content. If you want to refer to my work, please create a link from the blog entry and also write out the citation:
Samira Kawash, "entry name," candyprofessor.com, entry date.

If you would like to copy, re-post, or reproduce my work, please contact me for permission.

Categories

Header Image Credit