From pecan pie to homemade marshmallows, there’s a chance your favorite dessert recipe calls for corn syrup. This liquid sweetener is known for adding sheen to ganache, keeping caramel smooth, and giving homemade candy the perfect chewy texture, so what’s not to love? Well, since both corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup (they’re different!) are processed foods, they fall into the everything-in-moderation category. That means we’re on the hunt for some alternatives, and we’ve found some good ones!
What Is Corn Syrup?
Let’s start by clearing up any confusion about corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS). Both products are made from corn starch, but regular corn syrup (like the clear bottle stashed in your pantry) is pure glucose, while HCFS includes corn starch that’s been chemically converted to fructose, making it even sweeter.
This process remains pretty hush hush. When investigative journalist Michael Pollan was writing his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, companies Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill wouldn’t let him observe the process, writing “I wasn’t able to get into the factories where corn is turned into high-fructose corn syrup, which you wouldn’t think would be so controversial.”
Shoppers won’t find HFCS on the shelves to purchase, but since HFCS is cheaper than regular sugar, it makes its way into lots of processed foods, from canned sodas to cereals, so read those labels!
Types of Corn Syrup
In addition to high-fructose corn syrup, there are a few others to know.
- Light corn syrup: This version has been clarified to be clear and colorless, and typically has vanilla flavor.
- Dark corn syrup: The darker variety gets its color from molasses, lending a more caramel-like flavor.
- High maltose corn syrup: Maltose is sugar, too, it’s just derived from malt—or germinating cereal grains.
Corn Syrup FAQ
Now it’s time for a little round of FAQ’s! If you’ve got a question, we probably have an answer, so take a read-through and you’re guaranteed to know more about corn syrup than you ever thought possible.
How long does corn syrup last?
According to Karo, a corn syrup manufacturer, the syrup can be used indefinitely, regardless of whether or not it’s been opened. But the company still recommends using before the “best by” date stamped on the container.
Does corn syrup have gluten?
Technically, no—it’s made from corn—but that doesn’t mean it’ll sit well with everyone’s tummy. If you’re eating gluten-free, be mindful of how your body responds so you can avoid problem symptoms!
Can I make corn syrup myself?
Actually, yes! But it’s not apples to apples. The homemade version won’t include stabilizers like store-bought varieties, so sugar crystals may form. Adding a bit of hot water should help dissolve them. Ready to give it a try? You’ll need corn on the cob, a vanilla bean, water, sugar, and salt. (Check out a recipe here.)
How does corn syrup differ from refined sugar?
Both corn syrup and refined sugar are processed, but with some key differences, especially when you stick sugar under a microscope—literally! Regular granulated sugar has jagged edges, and when it melts, the sugar liquefies. Sounds pretty typical, right? But if you keep cooking the sugar down into a syrup, those jagged little edges have a tendency to reattach themselves to each other, so instead of a smooth, shiny caramel or chocolate sauce, you can end up with a sticky mess. Corn syrup acts as an interfering agent to keep things smooth.
Why is high fructose corn syrup bad?
In Dr. Mark Hyman’s book What the Heck Should I Eat?, he explains that high-fructose corn syrup “is an industrial product that’s metabolized differently than sugar and does even more harm, including damage to the gut and liver. It may also contain mercury as a by-product of how it’s produced.” Bottom line: There’s nothing natural about HFCS, so use it sparingly in recipes, if at all. (For some sweet alternatives, keep reading!)
Corn Syrup Substitutes & Replacements
Wondering what to use instead of corn syrup? Get ready to explore the wonderful world of alternative sweeteners with lots of options to keep you enjoying favorite desserts. For example, if you’re making a caramel sauce, you can substitute corn syrup for a squeeze of lemon juice or a pinch of cream of tartar, which according to baking expert and blogger David Lebovitz, performs the same function.
Head to the tropics with coconut nectar, a sweetener made from the sap of coconut palm trees. Its texture is similar to maple syrup, but with earthy flavor notes, and it falls lower on the glycemic index than many other sweeteners.
Honey’s versatility makes it a winner in the dessert department. A drizzle helps sweeten baked goods like pound cake, muffins, and pie fillings, but don’t stop there! Perk up savory recipes, too, like homemade salad dressings, sauces, and marinades.
Most of us can’t tap our own maple trees so here’s the next best thing—organic maple syrup straight from Vermont. Maple syrup contains nutrients like manganese, zinc, and riboflavin, and if you’re counting calories, maple syrup has fewer than honey. Pour into all kinds of recipes like waffles, frosting, and cakes, to name a few.
We love molasses year-round, but it usually gets special attention during the winter months for holiday favorites like chewy molasses spice cookies. Molasses are made by boiling down cane sugar to a syrup and then extracting the sugar crystals—the dark liquid that’s left behind gets bottled.
Simple syrup lives up to its name—this sweetener is nothing more than sugar that’s been boiled with equal parts water until the sugar dissolves, making it easy to stir into iced beverages. Throw in herbs, spices, and fruit to make a variety of flavors.
Desserts Without Corn Syrup
Corn syrup isn’t the only sweetener to reach for when making irresistible desserts. In fact, we’d argue that the alternatives make baking even more exciting since there are so many options to try! Bookmark your favorite recipes and get cooking.
Pecan pie is a common recipe that uses corn syrup, but not this one! We use a gluten-free chocolate crust and sweeten the filling with maple syrup and dates. It’ll be the best ending to Thanksgiving dinner (or anytime).
Turn over a marshmallow bag and it might reveal corn syrup in the recipe. Make your own sweetened with raw honey instead, then dip each morsel into melted dark chocolate for extra decadence.
Here’s a frozen treat you’ll love to share! Cake pops are perfectly portable, fun to eat, and just right when you need a little portion control. The true icing on the cake (pun intended!) is a crunchy coating of silky buttercream made with chocolate and avocado.
We’re always berry excited when blueberries are in season, and pie is the perfect vehicle to enjoy them! A trio of gluten-free flours (coconut, tapioca, and almond) gives the crust a sturdy base, and the filling stays simple with fresh fruit, coconut sugar, and tapioca flour.
Ok, this isn’t exactly the same thing, but we come pretty close. Crunchy roasted peanuts, creamy peanut butter, and puffed brown rice are held together with dates—not corn syrup—to mimic the flavor of caramel.