Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly memorize one more name for sugar, there’s another to add to your vocabulary: invert sugar.
Making the occasional appearance on nutrition labels, invert sugar is a liquid sweetener used to maintain moisture in processed foods. But invert sugar isn’t all that different than the sugar you have in your cabinet.
What Is Invert Sugar?
If you’ve ever eaten flavored yogurt, ice cream or granola bars, chances are you’ve had some invert sugar. Invert sugar, also known as inverted sugar, is a liquid form of sugar added to many processed foods to help slow sugar crystallization and retain moisture.
Invert sugar is created via hydrolysis, a process in which sucrose is mixed with water and heated until the bonds between glucose and fructose break. Enzymes or acidic ingredients like citric acid or cream of tartar can be added to expedite the process (1).The result is a thick, sweet syrup comprised of half glucose and half fructose.
Because fructose is the sweetest type of natural sugar, the presence of free fructose in invert sugar gives it a much sweeter flavor compared with regular table sugar (2).
Invert sugar can be found in many foods, but it’s most commonly found in:
- Baked goods
- Fruit beverages that are not 100% fruit juice
- Granola bars
- Ice cream
- Soft drinks (and other sweetened beverages)
- Syrups (such as those used in coffee or alcoholic drinks)
Other Names for Invert Sugar
You will usually see “invert sugar” listed in the ingredients section of a food label. However, there are also additional sources of invert sugar on the market, some of which are natural and others that are man-made.
Other names for invert sugar include:
- Artificial honey: This product is technically the same as inverted sugar syrup but is sometimes nicknamed “artificial honey” thanks to its honey-like flavor.
- Honey: Honeybees produce an enzyme called invertase that allows them to naturally break down sucrose into the invert sugar form of glucose and fructose.
- Invert maple syrup: All maple syrup contains a small amount of invert sugar, but this type is tinkered with to create higher levels. It’s often used in maple-flavored candies, lollipops, frostings, and other maple confections.
- Inverted sugar syrup: This liquid syrup is made with invert cane sugar and is often used in commercial baking. It is also available for consumers to purchase as a liquid sweetener which can be used to make coffee drinks.
- There are two types of inverted sugar syrups: 50% or 100 %.
- 50% inverted sugar syrup still retains half of its sugar content as sucrose, but half of the sugar has been inverted to glucose and fructose.
- 100% inverted sugar syrup has had all its sugar inverted to glucose and fructose.
- There are two types of inverted sugar syrups: 50% or 100 %.
- Simple syrup: Simple syrups are often found at bars where they can be heated into a mixture of sugar and water to create varying levels of invert sugar. However, using these products in cocktails can add a lot of sugar and carbs to a drink.
Invert Sugar vs. Table Sugar
Invert sugar actually isn’t too different from standard table sugar. The biggest difference might be their forms. You’ll find table sugar in granules, and invert sugar is a liquid.
Another difference is in taste. Invert sugar is a little bit sweeter than standard sugar, as it’s higher in fructose, according to the Sugar Association. Generally, fructose is sweeter than glucose or sucrose.
Invert sugar clocks in pretty similarly to all other sugar when it comes to calories though, Jaramillo says. Standard sugar delivers about 15 calories per teaspoon, while most invert sugar has about 16. However, it is important to take not too that different brands of invert sugar have slightly different calorie counts.
Are There Any Benefits of Using Invert Sugar?
Invert sugar offers several benefits when it comes to food preparation.
Cost Effective Sweetness
Due to the mix of sugars – sucrose, glucose and fructose and the sweetness synergy between sucrose and fructose, Medium invert delivers an increased sweetness for the same solids when compared to sucrose alone. This extra sweetness is useful in fruit flavored drinks were around 20% less carbohydrate sweetener can be used than would be the case with a standard invert.
Keeps Food Moist, Fresher
Invert syrup has a high affinity for water, so an invert syrup (a ‘humectant’) is often used to keep products moist and extend their shelf life. This additional moisture retention is especially important in low fat baked goods such as cakes, soft cookies and bread rolls, since these products can become dry and stale much quicker than their full fat counterparts. Invert syrup can also be used in place of glycerol as the humectant in cakes, where it brings additional benefits such as enhanced fruit flavors, extra sweetness, enhanced color and improved flavor development during cooking.
Preservation-water Activity Reduction (Aw)
If a product has a high ‘water activity’ it may be more prone to microbial contamination which in turn may reduce the shelf life. The increased number of molecules in an invert syrup causes an increase in osmotic pressure and inhibits microbial growth so it acts as a more effective preservative.
Freezing Point Depression
Use of an invert syrup can also lower the freezing point of solution and prevent the formation of large ice crystals. This is ideal for many products, including soft, easy-scoop ice creams and sorbets, baked goods held in frozen storage prior to being released to retailers, and freeze or thaw-stable fillings of cakes and toppings.
Invert syrups can slow down and minimize crystallization. They can, for example, keep icings and fondants soft and smooth throughout their shelf life. This ability is also useful in low temperatures – for example, where softness must be retained during freezing. Some jam recipes with low acid fruits produce very little sucrose inversion during boiling. So the addition of an invert at the start of the boil can prevent the jam from crystallizing.
The fructose in an invert syrup has a natural synergy with acid and fruit flavors and therefore can enhance these flavors in applications such as soft drinks, baked goods containing fruit, and fruit-flavored confectionery.
Invert syrup’s natural affinity for water and its ability to reduce crystallization can give products a soft, pliable texture and extended shelf life, including American style cookies, sweet pancakes, hamburger buns, and more.
Inverts are used extensively in the production of elixir and cough linctuses giving a smooth mouth-feel, palatable delivery, and suspension of active ingredients.
Flavor and Color Development
Invert syrups have a higher tendency to develop color and therefore enhance color development during the manufacture of toffee, caramels, and fudges.
What Can Added Sugar Do to Your Health?
The high amounts of refined and added sugars found in snack foods, sweets, and sodas have been linked with weight gain, as they tend to be calorie dense with none of the nutritive benefits.
Invert sugar is a form of added sugar, and its nutritional features are almost identical to those of regular table sugar or corn syrup.
Invert sugar contains about 46 calories and 13 grams of sugar per tablespoon (3).
It’s important to limit your intake of foods that contain invert sugar. Overconsumption of any type of added sugar is associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and obesity (4).
Simply treat invert sugar like any other form of added sugar and aim to avoid consuming too much to reduce your risk of experiencing adverse health outcomes.
To avoid these risks, the AHA recommends women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily and that men should limit their added sugar intake to 9 tsp or less (5). If you’re adding 2 tsp of sugar to your daily coffee, eating cereal or granola that contains added sugar, and drizzling a store-bought salad dressing on your greens, you may be at or near your daily added-sugar limit by lunchtime.
How is Invert Sugar Made At Home?
At home, the best way to make invert sugar is by heating white sugar, water, and citric acid or cream of tartar.
To make 1 kilo of invert sugar, his recipe calls for 1 kg of extra fine granulated sugar, 2 cups of water and 1/4 tsp cream of tartar or citric acid.
You will need a good candy thermometer, a pastry brush, and a thick-bottomed stockpot.
The ingredients are stirred and brought to a boil in a non-reactive saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the temperature to medium and continue boiling without stirring. Stirring will cause crystallization, which is undesirable.
Any sugar crystals formed on the walls of the saucepan are washed with a pastry brush dipped in water, without the brush ever touching the mixture. You want the water to gently roll down into the mixture. This water will not cause any adverse effects.
The mixture is boiled to 236F (114C), after which it is removed from heat, covered and cooled down to room temperature, undisturbed. Homemade invert sugar will store in a fridge for at least six months.
Best Substitutes for Invert Sugar
Want the scoop on a handful of newer and healthier sweeteners? Here you go!
1. Date Syrup
This sweetener is made from dates, offers rich caramel notes, and boasts some nutrients. In a 1 tablespoon serving, for example, you’ll get 2 grams of fiber, as well as a very small amount of potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Nutrition info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that calorie for calorie, it’s about the same as agave syrup and honey, but with slightly less sugar than both, making it a somewhat better choice for people with diabetes, although moderation is still key.
2. Monk Fruit Extract
Originally, non-nutritive sweeteners were predominantly used to decrease the sugar content of sweet foods for people with diabetes or people looking to cut calories and lose weight. Over the years, many new options have emerged as consumers continually evolve their taste preferences and perceptions about which sweeteners are acceptable. Naturally derived sweeteners such as monk fruit have gained popularity recently with the rise of the clean-eating trend.
When it comes to sweetening with monk fruit, a little goes a long way because it has a high sweetening power. Monk fruit extract can be found in many different forms, from syrups to crystals that are similar to table sugar so it has different culinary applications, from baking to using it in your coffee.
3. Coconut Sugar
This sweetener naturally contains a small amount of potassium and comes from the nectar of the coconut tree’s palm blossom. Compared with table sugar, it has 19 less calories per tablespoon and a one-teaspoon serving is considered FODMAP friendly and a safer option for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It has a lower glycemic index than traditional table sugar, so it may be a better alternative for people with diabetes, though research is mixed on this. In baking, you can sub it cup for cup for table sugar.
4. Sugar Alcohols Such as Erythritol
Naturally found in fruits, sugar alcohols are a fabulous option to provide sweetness to foods without added calories. But not all are the same. Anyone who has ever eaten too much sugar-free candy knows it can cause some unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects. That’s because the sorbitol traditionally used to sweeten candies can have a laxative effect.
These days, you’ll often find erythritol on ingredient labels, such as those of ice cream–like products. It tends to be better tolerated than other sugar alcohols because most of it is absorbed in the small intestine. So only a small amount reaches the colon, reducing its laxative effect. As with anything, tolerance will vary with individuals and portion size is an important factor.
Erythritol is found in granular and powdered form and can be used for baking or sweetening beverages. According to the American Diabetes Association, sugar alcohols, including erythritol, can be good for people with diabetes because they contain fewer calories and affect blood sugar less than traditional sugar.
5. Tapioca Syrup
Made from cassava, this natural sweetener has a neutral taste. It’s available in several varieties, some with calorie counts close to that of agave syrup and honey, and some with about 20 calories less per tablespoon. For sweetness, tapioca syrup can work as a corn syrup replacer. Think of substituting tapioca syrup in recipes for homemade lollipops, for example. Some versions tend to be a bit more viscous, which is good for binding certain baked goods like granola bars.
What’s old is new when it comes to sweeteners and more and more chefs are using molasses, which experts say offers an earthy taste. Light molasses is a flexible option, but dark molasses boosts flavor more and pairs well with strong spices, like ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, in baked goods like gingerbread cookies as well as BBQ sauces.
Pick up a bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce, and it might very well be made with molasses! Blackstrap molasses is less sweet and the most concentrated option, but its smoky and bitter flavors limit it as a substitute. It shines in baked beans, dark breads, and some pork dishes. The blackstrap variety offers minerals such as iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, according to the USDA.
You can incorporate small amounts of invert sugar or other sweeteners into your diet; just make sure that you don’t eat them frequently and that you stay within the recommended daily intake limits. A slice of birthday cake or iced mocha is not likely to cause health problems associated with excess sugar intake as long as these are just occasional treats. For optimal health, follow a well-balanced diet that is low in added sugars.