Is corn syrup cheaper than sugar?

Corn syrup and sugar are both commonly used sweeteners in food production. With rising costs of ingredients, manufacturers often look for ways to reduce expenses without compromising on quality or taste. This leads to an important question – is corn syrup cheaper than sugar?

What is Corn Syrup?

Corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. Through a multi-step process, cornstarch is broken down into glucose molecules which results in a thick, gooey syrup. There are different types of corn syrups available, with varying levels of sweetness:

  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – HFCS is the most commonly used type of corn syrup. It is sweeter than regular corn syrup.
  • Light or dark corn syrup – Light and dark corn syrups have a more mild sweetness and subtle flavor compared to HFCS.

The sweetness of corn syrup comes from fructose and glucose. HFCS contains higher levels of fructose compared to plain corn syrup. Fructose is sweeter than glucose. The level of sweetness depends on the amounts of glucose and fructose in the syrup.

What is Sugar?

Sugar refers to sucrose which is derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. Sucrose is a disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose bonded together. Table sugar is sucrose. Other common types of sugars include:

  • Raw sugar – Less processed sugar with trace amounts of molasses.
  • Brown sugar – White sugar with added molasses for flavor and color.
  • Powdered sugar – Finely ground sugar with added anticaking agents.
  • Turbinado sugar – Raw cane sugar that is steam-cleaned rather than chemically processed.

The level of sweetness depends on the type of sugar. Powdered sugar and turbinado sugar are slightly less sweet than white granulated sugar. Brown sugar has a milder sweetness due to the molasses. Raw sugar tastes very similar to white sugar despite the slight flavor from molasses.

Manufacturing Process

Corn Syrup Manufacturing

The corn syrup manufacturing process involves:

  1. Milling corn to extract corn starch
  2. Mixing the corn starch with water to make a slurry
  3. Adding enzymes to the slurry to break down the starch into glucose
  4. Separating the glucose into different components via centrifugation and filtration
  5. Converting glucose into fructose using xylose isomerase to make HFCS
  6. Blending glucose and fructose in varying ratios to make light or dark corn syrup
  7. Filtering and concentrating the syrups to standard specifications

It takes approximately 48-72 hours to produce corn syrup in a wet milling plant. The yield is about 31 pounds of corn syrup per bushel of corn.

Sugar Manufacturing

The process for manufacturing sugar includes:

  1. Harvesting and transporting sugar beets or sugarcane to factories
  2. Washing and slicing the crops into cossettes or diffusers
  3. Extracting the juice using diffusers, mills or presses
  4. Treating the juice with lime to adjust pH and remove impurities
  5. Evaporating water from the juice to make a syrup
  6. Crystallizing the syrup by pan boiling, vacuum boiling or continuous crystallization
  7. Centrifuging to separate raw sugar crystals from molasses
  8. Refining raw sugar by mixing with syrups and re-crystallizing to make pure sucrose
  9. Drying and packaging the refined sugar

It takes 12-24 hours to manufacture refined sugar from sugarcane or sugar beets in a factory. The yield is about 7-9 pounds of sugar per 100 pounds of crops.

Cost of Raw Materials

The primary raw material costs for corn syrup and sugar are:

  • Corn – For corn syrup production
  • Sugarcane – For cane sugar production
  • Sugar beets – For beet sugar production

The prices fluctuate based on crop yields, supply and demand. Over the past 5 years:

  • Corn prices ranged from $3.50 – $7.50 per bushel
  • Sugarcane prices averaged $26 per ton
  • Sugar beet prices averaged $49 per ton

On average, corn tends to be cheaper than sugarcane or sugar beets. However, corn crops are more susceptible to poor weather, pests and diseases which can drive prices up. Sugarcane and sugar beet costs are more stable year-to-year.

Manufacturing Costs

The manufacturing costs for corn syrup and sugar include:

  • Labor
  • Energy
  • Enzymes and chemicals
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Packaging
  • Transportation
  • Facility overhead

Corn syrup production costs tend to be lower compared to sugar production costs. Some key differences:

  • Corn needs less processing than sugarcane or beets to extract fermentable sugars.
  • The corn syrup process is more efficient requiring fewer steps.
  • HFCS production utilizes enzymes which are reused many times.
  • Sugar refining has higher labor and energy costs due to repeated crystallization and centrifugation.

Based on industry estimates, the manufacturing cost to produce one pound of corn syrup ranges from $0.10 – $0.25. For sugar it ranges from $0.25 – $0.35 per pound.

Supply and Demand Factors

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup supply depends on:

  • Corn harvest yields which vary each season
  • Capacity of wet milling plants
  • Competition from foreign corn syrup producers

HFCS demand comes primarily from soft drink and processed food manufacturers looking for a cost-effective sweetener. Demand for corn syrup rises and falls based on:

  • Consumer preference for products containing HFCS
  • Food industry requirements for processed, stable liquid sweeteners
  • Beverage industry demand affected by seasonality and promotions


Cane and beet sugar supply is influenced by:

  • Annual harvests and crop damage from weather or disease
  • Farming costs and profitability
  • Competition from imported sugar sources

The primary driver of sugar demand is the retail consumer market. Demand varies based on:

  • Consumer desire for sweeteners in home baking and cooking
  • Preference for cane or beet sugar over other sweeteners
  • Food industry demand for sugar in manufacturing

Pricing Factors

Many factors impact the retail prices of corn syrup and sugar including:

  • Raw material costs – Corn, sugarcane and sugar beet prices affect finished product costs.
  • Manufacturing costs – Expenses for labor, energy, transport and packaging determine base pricing.
  • Supply – Tight supply increases prices while oversupply lowers prices.
  • Demand – Surges in demand enable price increases while weak demand forces discounts.
  • Competition – Other sweeteners like honey, agave, aspartame, etc. constrain pricing power.
  • Subsidies – Government agriculture subsidies indirectly affect pricing.
  • Marketing – Brand messaging and consumer willingness-to-pay enables premium pricing.

Manufacturers balance these factors to price their products at a point that covers costs while maximizing profit. This leads to constant fluctuations in published prices for corn syrups and sugars based on market dynamics.

Pricing Comparison

To compare current prices, here are average retail costs for corn syrup and different sugar types:

Sweetener Average Retail Price Per Pound
High fructose corn syrup $0.30
White granulated sugar $0.60
Brown sugar $0.70
Powdered sugar $0.80
Raw sugar $1.00

Based on current retail prices, corn syrup ranges from 50% to 70% lower cost than cane or beet sugar on a per pound basis. This significant difference in price point makes corn syrup the economical choice for manufacturers. However, some consumers are willing to pay higher prices for cane sugar due to perceived quality differences.

Quality Factors

Beyond basic cost and pricing considerations, the functional properties of the sweetener also matter when comparing corn syrup and sugar:

Corn Syrup

  • Provides an acid-stable, neutral pH sweetness unlike sugar which can degrade in acidic foods over time.
  • Remains in solution and does not recrystallize as it has no distinct melting point.
  • Offers a smooth, thick texture that is appealing in beverages.
  • Works as an effective humectant to retain moisture in baked goods.
  • Is available in a wide range of sweetness levels and sugar profiles to meet specific needs.


  • Has a clean, pure sweetness flavor many consumers prefer over corn syrup.
  • Provides bulk and texture in baking for light and airy baked goods.
  • Browns and caramelizes to give breads and cookies more complex flavors.
  • Ferments when used in yeast breads which corn syrup cannot achieve.
  • Crystallizes when used in confections to give fudge and candy a smooth texture.

For applications like candy production or home baking where crystallization is desired, corn syrup does not perform the same role as sugar. The optimal sweetener depends on the food product characteristics needed.

Health Concerns

There are conflicting health claims regarding the use of corn syrup versus sugar:

Corn Syrup

  • Linked to increased obesity rates but no direct causation proven.
  • Provides empty calories without vitamins, minerals or fiber.
  • May increase triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.
  • Contains no nutritional benefits compared to other natural sweeteners.
  • HFCS may influence metabolism differently than plain sugar but studies are inconclusive.


  • Also supplies empty calories without nutrients.
  • Overconsumption has been associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
  • Causes blood sugar spikes and crashes leading to energy level fluctuations.
  • Natural sugars like coconut sugar have lower glycemic index than table sugar.
  • Some studies show links between sugar and inflammation, liver disease and hypertension.

Both corn syrup and sugar should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. For consumers looking to limit sugar intake, corn syrup may be perceived as a slightly better option but it provides no real health advantage.

Environmental Impacts

The production of corn syrup and sugar both require significant natural resources:

Corn Syrup

  • Corn uses large amounts of nitrogen fertilizers which run off into waterways.
  • Corn grown for HFCS requires prime cropland that could produce food instead.
  • Wet milling plants use large quantities of water for processing.
  • Fuel is needed to transport corn from fields to processing plants.


  • Sugarcane harvesting burns fields which causes air pollution.
  • Sugar beets require phosphorus fertilization which has ecosystem impacts.
  • Sugar factories use lots of water for multiple washings and cleanings.
  • Sugar transport also relies heavily on fuel for long distances.

Overall, corn syrup production may have a slight edge over sugar in terms of environmental footprint. But both industries are working to implement sustainable practices from sourcing to manufacturing.


To summarize key points:

  • Based on raw material and processing costs, corn syrup is cheaper to produce than cane or beet sugar.
  • Corn syrup prices currently average about $0.30/lb while sugar retails for $0.60-1.00/lb.
  • Sugar offers some functional benefits like crystallization that corn syrup cannot replicate.
  • Neither sweetener has a significant nutritional advantage over the other.
  • Both corn and sugar production have environmental impacts from fertilizer use, emissions and resource consumption.

For food manufacturers, corn syrup is generally the most cost effective and consistent sweetener option. But sugar maintains a perception of higher quality with some consumers. The optimal sweetener ultimately depends on the flavor, texture, shelf life and budget for a given food application. With rising costs across the entire food industry, both corn syrup and sugar will likely continue playing major roles in processed foods for years to come.

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