How a Design Student Cracked the Code to High Fructose Corn Syrup | Civil Eats

How a Design Student Cracked the Code to High Fructose Corn Syrup

This article was published in the March-April 2014 edition of Edible Manhattan.

Prior to grad school at Parsons, Maya Weinstein’s mediums included fine art photography and digital collage. But for her master’s thesis she settled on a stickier subject: High-fructose corn syrup.

“There are a lot of videos and articles on the web that talk about how scary and bad HFCS is for you, but there’s not really any information about what it actually is or how it’s made,” says Weinstein, a recent graduate of the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design. “I saw a void there that I wanted to fill.”IMG_0845_opt

So, for class credit, she set out to reverse engineer the secret ingredient to the industrialized food system’s success—found in processed foods from Oreos to Capri Sun to Stove Top Stuffing. By deconstructing the formula and sharing a DIY recipe, she hoped to gain insight into its mysterious, mechanized origins. As an artist, she knew she had to get her hands on it to understand it, and she wanted to help others do the same—complete with a video that looks like Rachael Ray in a post-apocalyptic 2114 kitchen.

“I was attracted to the idea of this being a type of cooking show for a new era of food,” says Weinstein. “There’s a kind of dichotomy in making something as industrialized and processed as high-fructose corn syrup at home and filming it like a home movie for cooks.”

IMG_0691_optBut first, she needed a recipe. Googling was useless, as was calling industrial corn refineries. Remembering a scene in King Corn in which filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis concoct the sickeningly sweet syrup from their own Iowa crop, she dialed the duo, who were happy to help.

But where to source alpha-amylase, a protein enzyme essential to the mix? The trail led her to university chemists in North Carolina, Hampton Research Co. and several brewing companies. With her unorthodox mise en place, she began cooking—if you can call it that.

newsmatch banner 2022

“The hardest part was sourcing ingredients—learning what kinds are for food production versus industrial production, heat ratios, what they do to the corn, figuring out where in the process to add each [ingredient] and how.”

Quickly the project turned into an intense set of chemistry questions. But when she finally worked it out, she took a cue from the Food Network to show folks at home how they, too, can whip up some HFCS, just like Mom never used to make.

Her performance is so deadpan, one wonders: If glucose isomerase is stirred in by hand, instead of by a machine hidden by the barricades of the industrialized food complex, does the human touch make it any healthier?

For those brave enough to try this trick of the trade at home, Weinstein developed a prototype of a DIY HFCS kit.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

But the strange fruits of her own labor now sit untouched on a shelf in her refrigerator. Since graduating last May, Weinstein has developed a corn allergy.

Want to see it all in action? Watch Weinstein cook up corn syrup here

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

Jeanne Hodesh is a MFA student at Hunter College. She writes about food and travel from Brooklyn, NY. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

General

Featured

Popular

Soil Health Is Human Health

David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, authors of

22 Reasons to Support Civil Eats on #GivingTuesday 2022

Farmer Doug Crabtree walks in his sunflower field (Photo by Jennifer Hopwood, Xerces Society)

Young Farmers Are Growing Food for Climate Action and Racial Justice

Iriel Edwards working on the farm. (Photo courtesy of Iriel Edwards)

A Young Oyster Farmer Carrying on the Family Business

Gaby Zlotkowsky on a boat holding a basket of oysters. (Photo credit: Capshore Photography)