We hear a lot about the evils of high fructose corn syrup (ominously initialized HFCS) these days. It’s the packaged food industry’s most pervasive sweetner, found in everything from Coke to ketchup. Anything that broadly used simply must be evil — an articifially created, chemically modified, fatally addictive hypno-crack. A team effort by the National Corn Growers Association, Columbian drug lords, Dow Chemical, Karl Rove and Satan.
Since 1811, the year Gottlieb Kirchhoff combined sulfuric acid with potato starch and created syrup, scientists have been aware that starches are rich sources of sugar. The problem for the next hundred years or so was how to produce it on a mass scale. In time it was discovered that plant enzymes (non-living organic molecules that perform specific tasks for living organisms) could do the job just as effectively, breaking down (hydrolyzing) long-chain starches into their sweet-tasting pieces.
Quite simply it’s a flowing mixture of sugar and usually at least a little water. That water is partly responsible for the fact that most syrups, despite their sugar concentration, don’t crystallize easily. But there’s usually something else in there that inhibits crystallization, a little something called invert sugar. Invert sugar is a term that gets tossed around quite a bit in cooking and baking circles, about as much as “caramelization” and “Maillard reaction.” But what exactly is it?
Basically, invert sugar is a mixture of sucrose (25%) and its two component sugars, glucose and fructose (75%). Invert sugar exists in nature but is usually made by humans for various culinary and scientific applications. You get it by making a mixture of sucrose (table sugar) and water, then heating it and adding an acid. In the kitchen that acid can be lemon juice, tartaric acid, vinegar or any number of others.