Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ads or seen one of the “puff pieces” in the mainstream media lately. You know, the ones that say corn syrup is all natural and just as safe as sugar—used in moderation, of course. The agribusiness combines that profit from this ubiquitous sweetener, found in everything from Twinkies to ketchup, have been forking over serious cash ($20+ million) to get their “safe” message out. These ads target working women, as the industry is concerned that they are losing market share with a key demographic: kids.
Americans consume about fifty pounds of high fructose corn syrup per capita. A recent (slight) decline in that amount, possibly fueled by consumer concerns about diabetes and obesity, is the driving force behind the industry campaign. The U.S. Surgeon General issued a landmark statement on obesity in 2001, warning that America’s expanding waistline could reverse many health gains achieved in recent decades. And few brave scientists (brave because the corn syrup industry has always vigorously defended its turf) noticed what seemed to be a relationship between the increases in obesity and corn syrup’s increasingly sweet market share.
Scientist Yoshiyuki Takasaki patented high-fructose corn syrup in 1971 while working for a government-affiliated laboratory in Japan. Initial attempts to market high fructose corn syrup to soft drink manufacturers met with limited success, as corn syrup’s easier handling properties (as a liquid it is easier to transport) were not enough of an offset to counter the lower costs of sugar at that time.
Either the price of sugar had to increase or corn had to decrease in price. A political solution was in order and agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) began an intense lobbying campaign to place limits on imports of cane sugar in the interest of “protecting” domestic sugar producers. In 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed off on legislation that imposed rigorous limits on sugar imports, and sales of high fructose corn syrup skyrocketed.
Here’s how that protection works, according to the Cato Institute:
1. First, USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation lends money each year to sugar cane processors at a specific rate per pound of sugar. The loans must be repaid, with interest, after nine months.
The processors use the money to operate their factories and to pay sugar growers for the cane or beets that they deliver to the mills. Should the price of raw sugar fall below the amount set by the government at the time of the loan, the sugar processing companies are allowed to forfeit their sugar in lieu of repaying the loan.
2. The law requires that this program operate at no net cost to the federal government. The government must then manipulate the market to keep sugar prices higher than the price at which the sugar companies would forfeit their product. Otherwise the government would be out of the money lent and still have the sugar to distribute, further adding to the governments net cost.
3. To manipulate the market, each year the USDA estimates how much sugar Americans will consume in the following year and how much sugar U.S. growers will send to market to meet consumers demand.
4. The USDA then establishes a quota for imports of sugar from foreign producers, such as the Dominican Republic, Brazil, the Philippines, and Australia. This quota allows just enough sugar in to meet demand, but not so much as to affect the already high prices.
The second part of the equation, lowering corn prices, involved agricultural subsidies that were originally designed to protect farmers against price fluctuations in the world market during the great depression. The program has evolved into a multi-billion dollar form of corporate welfare, with taxpayers shelling out $41.9 billion in corn subsidies between 1995 and 2004.
Again, from the Cato Institute:
The Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM) has been the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history. ADM and its chairman Dwayne Andreas have lavishly fertilized both political parties with millions of dollars in handouts and in return have reaped billion-dollar windfalls from taxpayers and consumers. Thanks to federal protection of the domestic sugar industry, ethanol subsidies, subsidized grain exports, and various other programs, ADM has cost the American economy billions of dollars since 1980 and has indirectly cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in higher prices and higher taxes over that same period. At least 43 percent of ADM‘s annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. Moreover, every $1 of profits earned by ADM‘s corn sweetener operation costs consumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.
But wait! It gets better! That doesn’t even count the environmental price tag.
Given that most corn is grown as a monoculture, it depletes soil nutrients, requiring more pesticides and fertilizer while weakening topsoil. “The environmental footprint of HFCS is deep and wide,” writes Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Look no farther than the dead zone in the Gulf [of Mexico], an area the size of New Jersey where virtually nothing will live because it has been starved of oxygen by the fertilizer runoff coming down the Mississippi from the Corn Belt. Then there is the atrazine in the water in farm country — a nasty herbicide that, at concentrations as little as 0.1 part per billion, has been shown to turn male frogs into hermaphrodites.”
And we haven’t even started talking about why the stuff might be bad for you yet.
Defenders of the HFCS faith are quick to point to studies contradicting stories that cast the sweetener in a negative light. Over at the Accidental Hedonist (a blog that supplied much of the substance and inspiration for this article) author Kate Hopkins puts it this way: The rise in obesity is directly the result of over-production of a government subsidized sweetener.
There are “clues” that keep popping up that suggest health dangers as well.
One study claimed livers of rats on a high fructose diet looked like the livers of alcoholics, plugged with fat and cirrhotic. Another suggests that HFCS may contribute more to fat that is stored deep in the body around the abdominal organs. This fat is known to promote pre-diabetes (insulin resistance) and to increase blood fats (triglycerides). Two of the enzymes used in the manufacturing process, alpha-amylase and glucose-isomerase, are genetically modified to make them more stable. University of Florida researchers found that fructose-heavy diets “can induce leptin resistance, a condition that can easily lead to becoming overweight.” Leptin is a substance produced by the body to trigger feelings of satiety; it tells us when to stop eating. No wonder that big gulp is so easy to swallow.
The taxpayer subsidized and largely unregulated expansion of the processed food industry needs to be one of the action items for the incoming administration. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are mightily addicted to the campaign contributions that companies like ADM have traditionally doled out. The choice of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsak to be Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration has left many activists on this issue wondering if the “change” promised during the campaign is limited, like sales taxes in many states, to non-food items.