Sugar is one of the basic components of food. It is the fuel that the body burns for energy, and all complex carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes must first be converted into sugar through digestion before they can be metabolized. Early sources of sugar were honey and dates.
However, sugar remained a luxury until the 17th century when commercial production of sugar from sugar cane and beet was developed. Napoleon built sugar refineries throughout Europe in the hope of placating his empire in the face of the British blockade. [He even awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour to Benjamin Delessert for perfecting a process of producing white sugar from sugar beets.] Given the pervasiveness of sugar in the processed foods we eat, this article discusses the Kosher certification aspects of sugars. As we shall see, things are not always as they seem. “Korn” can contain leaven and “malto-dextrins” may be no more of a concern than Kitniyot
When we use the term sugar, we are usually referring to sucrose. Commercially, sucrose is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets.
The processing of sugar involves extracting the juice from the cane or beet, concentrating it, and crystallizing the crude sucrose crystals. The sucrose exists naturally in the plant — there is no conversion of raw materials into sugar. This process yields crude sugar and molasses, which is a sugar syrup containing about 50% sugar as well as other impurities. [It is not economical to remove this sugar, and the spent molasses is sold for various purposes including fermentation into rum (alcohol) and citric acid.]
The crude sugar crystal is called brown sugar, and still contains significant amounts of impurities. This sugar is then refined to remove these residual impurities to yield white sugar. We should note that the terms refining and impurities are somewhat of a misnomer.
We usually look to food as a source of balanced nutrition, and crude sugar has many nutritious components in addition to sucrose. The consumer has historically expressed an aesthetic preference for white sugar that has been stripped (refined) of these nutrients. This has changed somewhat today, however, with “health conscious” consumers often seeking “natural” sugar that is less refined.
Another major sugar used in food preparation is glucose. [Glucose is also known by its chemical name dextrose, a term derived from the fact that its crystal structure will deflect polarized light to the right (from the Latin dexter, meaning “right”). Fructose is also called levulose, because it will deflect light to the left (from the Latin laevus, meaning “left”).] Glucose is the sugar found in grapes, and it is sometimes still referred to as “grape sugar”.
In most cases this nomenclature is not indicative of the source of the sucrose, merely a name given it based upon historical imperative. [It should be noted, however, that due to market distortions in the price of sugar and grape juice in some countries, grape juice that cannot be sold in any other fashion may be converted into glucose and sold as such.] Glucose can also be produced through the hydrolysis of sucrose into its component sugars, glucose and fructose.
While such glucose is produced in small quantities, the preponderance of commercial glucose produced today is through the hydrolysis of starch. A starch molecule consists of a long chain of glucose molecules linked together, and glucose is obtained by cleaving individual glucose molecules from the starch. This hydrolysis can be done by adding acids or using amylase enzymes.
The United States enjoys an abundance of corn (maize), and historically all glucose syrup manufactured in the United States comes from corn starch. This has led to the common use of the term “corn syrup” when referring to glucose syrup, and for this reason glucose and malto-dextrins produced in the United States can be considered purely Kitniyot.
Incidentally, “malto-dextrin” is unrelated to “malt”, and is not inherently (leaven) Chametz. The product is similar to glucose syrup, except that the hydrolysis is not complete; the starch molecule is broken into smaller units but not into individual glucose molecules. Interestingly, though, the terminology is related to malt. Malt is produced by soaking barley in water and allowing it to germinate.
The germ then produces a maltase enzyme, which cleaves the barley starch into units of two glucoses called maltose. Since maltose is a sugar made of multiple glucoses, the term malt is used together with the word dextrin (referring to longer chains of glucoses) — malto-dextrin.
Since all American malto-dextrin is made from corn starch, it is not Chametz. On the other hand, maltose syrup, even in the United States, may be leaven. The maltase enzyme used to produce maltose is often an extract from germinating barley.
The word “Korn” in German refers to grain, not maize, and the old English word “corn” follows this usage. Indeed, old English translations of Pharaoh’s insomniac inspirations refer to “seven sheaves of corn“. Maize is native to the New World, and Columbus had not yet discovered America during the time of Pharaoh Clearly, Pharaoh was not dreaming of corn on the cob; the “corn” to which he referred was one of the five species of grain.
While the etymology of the word corn may be of no more than passing interest, the possible leaven status of Korn syrup is not. In many European countries and Australia, glucose syrup is routinely made from wheat or barley starch, and is considered to be leavened (Chametz) and prohibited for use on Passover.
Even glucose made from maize can have a a concern of leaven for Passover, in that the enzymes used to make them may be grown on leavened glucose. It is important to be aware of this concern, since the United States — even with all of its corn — is no longer immune to this issue. The world is becoming a single market, and foreign specialty glucose, starch, and malto-dextrin products are making their way into the U.S. market, albeit in relatively small quantities. Fortunately, it is not economical to import conventional corn syrups.
Another commonly used sugar is fructose. While technically fruit sugar, it is prepared commercially by conversion from glucose through the use of a glucose isomerase enzyme. While all monosaccharides have the same caloric value, some taste sweeter than others. In determining the relative perceived sweetness of sugars, a scale has been devised with sucrose having a value of 1. Glucose has a value of 0.6, while fructose has a value of 1.6 on this scale. The source of these sugars is irrelevant to their sweetness, but can be a major factor in their price.
The United States has an indigenous sugar industry (sugar cane based in Florida and Louisiana and sugar beet in Minnesota and North Dakota). In order to protect the domestic sugar industry, imported sugar is subject to a quota. As a result, the price of sugar in the United States is significantly higher than the “world” price. [It is interesting to note that allocation of this quota has historically been a tool of U.S. foreign policy. One of the first actions signaling U.S. displeasure with Fidel Castro’s new government in Cuba was the elimination of the Cuban sugar allocation.] Corn based sweeteners are much less expensive, but since they were nominally glucose — and therefore not as sweet as liquid sugar — they were not suitable as a replacement for higher priced sugar.
In the 1970’s, however, the corn syrup manufacturers perfected the technology to convert glucose into fructose. By mixing glucose and fructose together, they created a product called High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which quickly replaced virtually all of the liquid sugar used in soft drinks in the United States. [Although liquid fructose is sweeter than liquid sugar — and could theoretically be used to make a soda with fewer calories — the syrup manufacturers elected to dilute the fructose with glucose so that HFCS would have the same sweetening power as liquid sugar. This allows soda manufacturers to use the two products interchangeably, with the catchall ingredient statement of “Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup”.]
However, although domestic HFCS may not be Chametz, it is still Kitniyot — and the Passover world would be without a significant amount of company if soft drinks only contained HFCS. Fortunately, this is the Passover generation, and the major soft drink manufacturers make special Kosher certified productions of the world’s favorite beverages for Passover (un-Kitniyot) the old fashioned way — they use liquid sugar (even though the label may state “Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup”). In more ways than one, Passover really does herald the Real Thing!