High Fructose Corn Syrup: A Sticky Fat Trap

When I was an undergraduate, one of my classmates said that university life can be quite insulating. It insulates us from many problems including the huge number of people who are now obese, referring to individuals with a Body Mass Index (BMI) – the ratio of weight to height – of 30 or higher.

50 years ago, obesity in the U.S. was an issue; that has changed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1992 there were only six states with 15 percent or more of the population was obese, and none with a rate over 20 percent. By 2008, only one state – Colorado – had fewer than a 20 percent obesity rate. According to the National Health Examination Survey, 13.4 percent of people 20-74 years of age in 1962 were classified as obese compared with 35.1 percent by 2006. While there is evidence that obesity rates appear to be leveling off, the numbers are still staggering.

There are several negative consequences of widespread obesity. According to an article in Health Affairs, each obese American incurs health care costs about 42 percent greater than someone with normal weight. It also shortens life expectancy and decreases productivity, due to increased illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. There is also the money spent on weight loss. With 25 percent of American men and 43 percent of American women attempting to lose weight each year, the weight loss industry is making billions, worth $55.4 billion in 2006. The resources and money used for this industry could clearly be used elsewhere.

The causes of obesity are not clear. One likely reason is the sedentary lifestyle most of us. Another is the increase in meal portions.

But a doctor of mine suggested, another reason could be the increased popularity of a particular sweetener known as High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is corn syrup that undergoes a type of processing. The use of HFCS has risen dramatically over the last 35 years. It is now used in all kinds of products, from most soft drinks and many name brand candies to products one would not associate with syrup: salad dressing, Yoplait yogurt and even healthier cereals like Special K.

Those arguing that HFCS causes obesity say that HFCS gives one the sensation of being less full as it has slightly more fructose than normal table sugar. But the medical research is unclear, with many studies clouded by the funding behind them. Some studies argue that HFCS contributes to obesity, but at least one was funded by the sugar industry. Other studies argue for no link, many of which were funded by those with a financial interest in HFCS’ continued use such as the corn and beverage industries. What also adds to the uncertainty is that HFCS comes in two varieties – one with more fructose than sugar used in yogurt, ice cream, soda and processed foods, and the other with less that is used in other beverages and baked goods.

What is noteworthy is that HFCS consumption has increased during the period that obesity has risen. Of course, association is not causation.  Still, as obesity numbers seem to be leveling off by 2008 and (possibly coincidentally) HFCS consumption started to significantly fall starting in 2007 due in part to companies like Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Log Cabin (a maple syrup company) deciding to no longer use HFCS.

But why has its usage increased so dramatically until recently? It has to do with our trade and agricultural policies. The federal government applies tariffs (taxes on imports) on sugar that have served to significantly raise the price of sugar. Meanwhile, the government has provided huge subsidies to corn, which lowers its price. So, businesses, always looking to lower costs, substituted HFCS for sugar.

It is time to reconsider our trade and agricultural policies. Obesity aside, protectionist measures are hardly economically beneficial for a country in the long run. Moreover, corn subsidies (at $56 billion for 1995-2006) do not appear justified on a cost/benefit analysis, even with regard to corn ethanol considering the alternative sugar ethanol.  Although unclear, there may be an added downside to these current policies – many people who are a lot heavier than they would otherwise be.

Wesley Oliphant is a social science graduate student. He can be reached at woliphan@uci.edu.