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Liquid sugar syrup vs corn syrup

25/04/2024 By Theresa Pereira in Products

Liquid sugar syrup and corn syrup are both used extensively in food and drinks production, primarily as a sweetening agent. However, both syrups can perform a range of functions beyond sweetening, which we outline below.

In this blog, we take a closer look at liquid sugar and corn syrup: what they are, how they are made, how they are different, and how they can be used in food and drinks production.

What is liquid sugar syrup and how is it made?

Liquid sugar syrup or liquid sugar is a solution comprising crystalline table sugar (sucrose) and water. The sugar may be either crystalline sucrose or white table sugar, refined from either sugar beet or sugarcane. Some formulations may use a raw cane sugar for a different flavour profile and colour. This article focuses mainly on liquid sugar made from sucrose, or table sugar. Liquid sugar is clear-to-yellow in colour, has a thin consistency and an intensely sweet flavour profile. However, while most sugar syrups are viscous, liquid sugar is not.

Pale yellow liquid being mixed in an industrial vat

The refined sugar is placed in an industrial vat with water and heated until the sugar has fully dissolved and the desired ratio of sugar to water is achieved.

If liquid sugar syrup is made from beet sugar, its refining process is different to when it is made from cane sugar. When sugar beet is used, thin strips of beet are combined with hot water in a diffuser for an hour. At this stage, extra ingredients of lime and carbon dioxide are added. The solution is then filtered and allowed to evaporate. The evaporation process leaves behind an amber juice. Seed crystals are added, and this transforms the juice into massecuite syrup.

Harvested sugar beet (left) and sugarcane stalks (right).

Liquid sugar is a water-based solution made from crystalline sucrose, refined from either sugar beet (left) or sugarcane (right).

The crystals must be separated from the molasses content, and this is done in a centrifuge. This takes only two minutes. The separated sugar crystals are then dried and sieved to catch any impurities.

The beet sugar is placed in an industrial vat with water and heated until the sugar has fully dissolved and the desired ratio of sugar to water is achieved. When the solution has a dry sugar content of 67%, it can be accurately called a sugar syrup. As part of quality control, an 80-micron filter is then used to remove any final impurities before the liquid sugar syrup is packed.

What is corn syrup and how is it made?

Corn syrup is an artificial sweetener that is usually produced from refined corn (maize) starch. In Europe, corn syrup is often made from wheat, not corn. Nevertheless, the term ‘corn syrup’ is a general one that can be applied to any syrups that are derived from corn starch. It is made by breaking down corn starch in a process called hydrolysis. As part of this process, water and corn starch are heated and enzymes are added. The enzymes break the starch down into simpler sugars called oligosaccharides, which contain between three and ten monosaccharides, including glucose. Further enzymes are then added to break the glucose molecules down. In the making of corn syrup, some of the glucose molecules are converted into sweeter fructose molecules.

A pile of corn (left) and a field of wheat (right)

Left: In the US, corn syrup is usually made from refined maize corn starch.
Right: In Europe, corn syrup is usually made from wheat.

The sweetness and viscosity can be controlled during hydrolysis, and the longer the process continues, the sweeter and more viscous the corn syrup will be. In consistency and appearance, corn syrups are viscous and may be lighter or darker in colour. Lighter corn syrup is virtually transparent and has a milder sweetness, while darker corn syrup has a richer sweetness and a caramel-like colour.

Both corn syrup and HFCS (see below) are much more commonly used in the USA compared to Europe and the UK. It’s use grew during the 1970’s when the sugar price reached record highs, whereas maize corn received subsidies from the US Government, keeping the price artificially low in comparison to the sugar price.

Beyond liquid sugar syrup and corn syrup, multiple sugar syrups are available, and these each perform a range of functions in food and drinks production. Ragus manufactures cane molasses, black treacle, fully and partially inverted sugar syrups like golden syrup, in addition to liquid sugars.

Liquid sugar syrup vs corn syrup: differences, functions and applications

The key difference between liquid sugar syrup and corn syrup is that liquid sugar is a naturally occurring clean label disaccharide made from either beet sugar or cane sugar, while corn syrup is an artificial sweetener industrially produced from corn starch. They are both water-based solutions that have a smooth texture. This texture makes these syrups ideal for mixing easily in commercially prepared drinks, jellies, sweets and condiments.

White ice cream visible in boxes on a conveyor belt in a factory or food manufacturing setting

Sugar syrups are used to soften the texture of commercially prepared ice cream and reduce the risk of crystallisation.

Though liquid sugar syrups are mainly used to add sweetness, they can also function as a humectant, prolonging shelf life in products such as baked goods. They may also be used to soften the texture of a product like sorbet or ice cream, and to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Syrups like these may also be used as a coating for cereal bars and other bought snacks, enhancing flavour and appearance.

Liquid sugar is used to prime and aid fermentation in beers and ciders, while corn syrup is a thickening agent and enhances volume in products like yoghurts and desserts.

Corn syrup vs high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

Corn syrup can be further processed to produce high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a liquid sweetener that is used in the production of some soft drinks, fruit juices, bread, cereals and baked goods.

To make high fructose corn syrup, enzymes are added to corn syrup which convert some of the glucose into fructose. As fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is related to the length of bonds in the molecule, this makes high fructose corn syrup particularly sweet. High fructose corn syrup is cheaper than regular sucrose, and it is commonly used in the USA as a sweetener in processed and ultra-processed foods.

Thick syrup solution being placed into a glass container by a person using a large spoon in a factory (left), and a bottle of high fructose corn syrup in a testing setting (right).

Corn syrup can be processed again to produce the sweetener high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This syrup (left and right) is often present in soft drinks, baked goods and fruit juices.

Corn syrup’s substitutes and alternatives

Alternatives to corn syrup include golden syrup, honey or maple syrup. Golden syrup, a partially inverted sugar syrup invented by Ragus’ founder Charles Eastick in 1883, has a deep amber colour with a caramelised taste. Though golden syrup is thicker than corn syrup, it can be substituted for use in products like caramel or other confectionery, and desserts.

Depending on the application and desired outcome, other viable alternatives may include:
* Honey
* Agave syrup
* Maple syrup
* Liquid sugar syrup
* Cane molasses

Naturally occurring clean label sugar-based syrups like liquid sugar are highly versatile and can be manufactured to meet specific application needs, including using different cane sugars as an alternative the beet sugar. Adding sugar in liquid form introduces efficiencies into some food and beverage manufacturing processes. 

Ragus manufactures a range of specially prepared pure syrups and crystalline sugars for industrial food and beverage producers. To learn more, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Theresa Pereira

Theresa ensures that our customers’ orders are managed efficiently and works closely with our Sales Office Manager to deliver all orders on time in full.

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