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Isomalt in Food, Sugar Sculpture, and Cake Decorating

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

What Is Isomalt?

Isomalt is a low-calorie sugar substitute that tastes sweet but doesn’t cause tooth decay. Unlike sugar (which is technically called sucrose), it has very little effect on the blood glucose level and is suitable for diabetics. It also has another advantage over sucrose—it's a better material for making so-called “sugar sculptures“.

Sculptures made from sugar are popular centerpieces, cake decorations, and art forms. They are also a great expression of creativity. Cooking sugar before using it enables artists to create stunning works of art that look as though they’re made of glass. Specialized art shows and competitions feature sculptures made from cooked sugar, isomalt, or a mixture of the substances.

Isomalt is often the preferred medium for sugar sculpture today. The general term for the art is still "sugar sculpture", however, even when a different sculpting medium is used. Even more confusingly, cake decorators often say that they are working with sugar when in fact they aren't. In all of the videos in this article, the word "sugar" actually refers to isomalt.

Using Isomalt in Food

Isomalt belongs to a family of chemicals known as the sugar alcohols. This family also contains maltitol, sorbitol, erythritol, xylitol, and other substances. All of the sugar alcohols are used as sugar substitutes, and none of them promote tooth decay. They are not related to the alcohol that we drink, despite the name of the family. If you are tempted to use xylitol as a sweetener, you should be aware that it can cause a deadly drop in blood sugar in dogs. The other members of the family don't have this effect.

Isomalt is an artificial chemical that's made from natural beet sugar (sucrose) and contains half the calories of sugar. It can be substituted for sugar in a one-to-one ratio in recipes. It isn't as sweet as sugar, however, and is sometimes combined with another sugar substitute, such as sucralose, to increase its sweetness. It's found is candies, cough drops, chewing gum, and baked goods.

It's important to eat only small quantities of isomalt at first. Like most sugar alcohols, it can cause gastrointestinal distress, including stomach upset, flatulence, and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed into the body through the lining of the intestine. The molecules that remain in the intestine are fermented by bacteria, producing gas. Some people find that their digestive system gradually becomes tolerant of isomalt, but this doesn't happen to everyone.

Using Sticks and Nibs

Isomalt is often preferred to sucrose when making a sculpture, especially for a public display. It's easy to work with, produces a beautifully smooth and glossy finish, doesn't crystallize after being cooked, and resists damage from humidity better than sucrose.

Isomalt is available in solid sticks or nibs which are already cooked and are very convenient for making cake decorations. These are often more expensive than uncooked isomalt crystals, though. The sticks or nibs must be briefly heated in a microwave oven to liquify them. Food colors can then be added to create a colored liquid. Most sticks and nibs are sold with color already added.

The hot liquid can be poured into silicon molds and solidified to create interesting and attractive designs. Heat-proof gloves must be used when creating the decorations because liquid isomalt is very hot.

How to Cook Isomalt Granules or Crystals

Uncooked isomalt is sold as granules or crystals. These have the added benefit of acting as a food sweetener as well as a sculpture medium. The crystals can be cooked by placing them in a heavy saucepan with just enough water to make them look like wet sand. The mixture should be heated to at least 170°C or 340°F. Some cake decorators prefer to reach a temperature of 180ºC. A candy thermometer should be used to keep track of the temperature.

When the isomalt begins to boil, a pastry brush can be used to brush the splashes on the side of the pan back into the liquid. It's important to be very careful when dealing with the hot liquid because it can burn the skin.

When the temperature goal is reached, the base of the saucepan should be held in the surface layer of a bowl of cool water just long enough to stop the cooking process and allow the bubbles to disappear. The process is shown in the video below. A cook should investigate whether moving the hot saucepan that they own into cold water is likely to damage the saucepan.

Different pastry chefs have different ideas about the best time to add color to isomalt that is being cooked. A frequent recommendation is to add a water-based color at 140°C or 280°F and then to continue cooking.

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Using and Storing Isomalt

Liquid isomalt can be poured into a mold to set or shaped without a mold once it has cooled slightly and become more solid. In order to form a shape by hand, the hot liquid should be poured on to a marble surface or a silicon mat that has been lightly greased or sprayed with vegetable oil. Oiling a non-stick mat isn't necessary.

Cooked isomalt needs to be sculpted while it's still warm and before it completely hardens. If it becomes too cold and stiff, it can be softened with a heat lamp. If it's going to be stored, it can be cooled and broken into pieces. The pieces should be placed in an airtight container with silica gel packets. These packets absorb moisture from the air, which is necessary because solid isomalt may become tacky when it absorbs water. The substance will stay in good condition for months or even for a year or more if the storage conditions are right.

Pulling and Blowing Techniques

When someone is ready to work with stored isomalt, the substance needs to be warmed with an infrared lamp or heated briefly by an alcohol burner to make it flexible. Broken pieces can be joined to each other by heating one piece to soften it and then pressing it on to the other piece.

In addition to pouring hot, cooked isomalt into molds, other techniques can be used to create interesting sugar sculptures. The cooked substance can be pulled and blown to create different shapes, textures, and appearances.

To pull a piece of isomalt, use one hand to hold one of the ends against a marble surface or a silicon mat. Pick up the other end with the other hand and pull away from the first hand. Then fold the stretched piece of isomalt back on itself. The substance behaves like taffy and becomes shinier the more often it's pulled.

The stretchiness of cooked isomalt allows it to behave like a balloon. Air can be pumped into a soft ball of the substance with a hand pump to expand the ball and create a bubble. The open end can then be sealed with heat. The video below gives more details about each step. It explains how to inflate the ball or bubble and how to keep it inflated.

Taking Care of the Sculptures

Isomalt sculptures are durable and long-lasting at room temperature. They don't melt or crystallize and maintain their form. It's important to keep them away from added heat, though, as well as from humid environments. Each of these factors may degrade the sculpture.

There is one very nice feature related to isomalt's ability to soften at high temperatures. If part of a sculpture breaks, it's easy to warm it, reshape it, and reattach it to the sculpture.

Isomalt can't be bought in supermarkets, at least in my part of the world, but it is available at specialty stores such as ones that sell cake decorating supplies. It’s also sold online. In this case, the shipping cost and time would need to be considered.

Creating Sculptures for Cake Decorations

It's very easy to begin using isomalt for cake decorations by buying precooked sticks or nibs, melting them, and then using silicon molds to form shapes. More advanced techniques are fun but require the purchase of special equipment like a heat lamp, a burner, a hand pump, and a silicon (or silicone) baking mat for the isomalt. Some sugar sculptors even use blowtorches to heat their isomalt. Of course, it's very important to be careful with lamps, burners, and blowtorches.

You may be able to find classes for sugar sculpture in your area if you're interested in learning more about this art form. Creating intricate sculptures requires practice. Training is very useful for learning new techniques and getting helpful tips from the instructor. Using molds is a great way to begin the creation of attractive decorations, however, and may be all that some people need or want. Whatever method is used, decorating cakes with isomalt can be a fun and creative process.

The glossy parts of this edible aquarium are made of isomalt.

The glossy parts of this edible aquarium are made of isomalt.


  • Sugar alcohol or polyol facts from the Government of Canada (Isomalt and other sugar alcohols belong to a group of chemicals that is also known as the polyol group).
  • Sugar and sweeteners information from Diabetes Canada
  • How to prepare isomalt for sugarcrafting from Learn Cake Decorating Online

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 03, 2020:

I think it's a lovely art form. Some people create excellent sculptures. Thanks for the visit, Anna.

Anna Javier on October 03, 2020:

I really wish I could try this. I've been making a lot of different art but never this. it's just like glass blowing. Takes a lot of practice! Love the underwater sculpture!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 02, 2012:

Those sound like beautiful Christmas cake decorations, GoodLady! Your mother is certainly creative. Thanks for the comment.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on August 02, 2012:

What a pretty art form. My mother would love it and I'll suggest she looks for a class near where she lives in Paso Robles. When we were little she made beautiful Christmas cakes with lights that shone from windows and ice skaters that could skate across her white lakes. She wasn't using isomalt however, just icing sugar.

Nice Hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 01, 2012:

Hi, drbj. I agree, the creations of the expert sugar sculptors are awesome! Thank you very much for the comment and the vote.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 01, 2012:

How skillful these sugar sculptors are, Alicia. I watched two of these fantastic videos and will come back to watch the rest. Thank you for the wonderful introduction to isomalt. Who knew? Voted way Up, m'dear.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 01, 2012:

Thanks, Tom! I appreciate your comment and vote.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Hi my friend, this is such an interesting hub and i loved reading it because i did not know any of this information, thanks for putting more into my knowledge base .

Vote up and more !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 01, 2012:

Hi, susiebrown48. Thanks for the comment and the votes! Yes, I loved the sugar swan video too. Some of the sculptures that people create with isomalt are very impressive and beautiful.

susiebrown48 from Clearwater, FL on August 01, 2012:

Awesome, informative article! I loved the sugar swan video, what talent. Voted up and interesting!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 31, 2012:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, moonlake. I appreciate the vote, too!

moonlake from America on July 31, 2012:

I have never heard of isomalt very interesting. Enjoyed your hub and the videos. Voted Up.

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