Search This Blog

Friday, December 17, 2010

HFCS: Spawn of Satan?

I wrote here yesterday about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and nutrition, health and diet.  Its clear to me that HFCS along with sugar are contributing to the obesity of people around the world.

But what's contributing HFCS to our food supply in the first place?  Why do we even need this product?

Well let's take a look...

Before there was HFCS there was sugar.  So let's start with that.  Some research led me to this article about the history (written in the 1990's) of sugar prices in the US.  You can read more about the details, which are quite interesting, but the bottom line seems to be summed up by this one sentence: "U.S. sugar prices have been as high as or higher than world prices for 44 of the last 45 years."  The point of the article is that sugar tariffs are imposed to ensure that cheap foreign sugar does not easily enter the US.  The tariffs come and go over time but when they are present they drive up the cost of sugar significantly.

The basic system here is and was to ensure that US sugar growers, who have a nice lobbying effort, also have a nice market.  By restricting foreign imports consumers and businesses pay a premium to use sugar.  US consumers pay a heavy multiple for sugar over the world price (maybe 4x or 5x).

Of course, from a health perspective, too much sucrose, which is what US-produced sugar is, is in my opinion just as bad a food product as anything else.

Eventually all of this price manipulation and sugar price pressure led big purchasers of sugar, e.g., Coca Cola, to switch from sugar for the products to HFCS.  This switch, in the 1980's, created a market for HFCS which was quite significant.  

While tariffs on importing cheap world sugar don't cost the US government very much they cost the US consumer heavily each year - some estimates go as high as many tens of billions of dollars each year.

Now we have to look at US corn production (see this PDF for backup).  In 2009 the US, which produces at least 40% of all corn on earth, produced 334 million metric tons of corn.  Interestingly this is about 26% of all crops grown in the US.  Of all this corn produced 42% is used for animal feed and other residual uses and about 32% goes into ethanol production.  A paltry 3.5% of all this corn is used to produce HFCS.

Unlike sugar the US Government pays out a lot in various "corn subsidies".  For the last fourteen years ending in 2009 (according to this) over five billion USD a year.  For this $5 billion USD of taxpayer investment we get a corn crop worth about $48 billion USD (in 2009).  About 40 times as much corn is planted each year as sugar producing crops (cane and beets).

So if you take the 48 billion USD corn crop and you take out the 3.5% used for HFCS you have a market of about 1.7 billion USD for corn supplied to HFCS producers and about $175 million USD in subsidies (proportionally) are used to support that market.  From this about 19.5 billion pounds of HFCS (dry) are produced each year - though demand is presently falling.

Of this 19.5 or so billion bounds of HFCS produced most goes into soft drinks - and again the category here is falling, i.e., consumption of soft drinks is in decline.

Given all of these facts is where does "HFCS is evil" fit in?

Well, for one thing is a product designed to counter the US Government's sugar price manipulation.  Without the US Government manipulating sugar prices there would probably be no HFCS.

We know that its just fructose and glucose - like sucrose without the bond holding the two together - but still natural sweeteners on their own.  Sure they were created from corn, but sugar is created from sugar cane or beets, so it isn't really any different.

HFCS is a tiny fraction of US corn production (3.5%) and corn subsidies.  (Ethanol is another story.)  To me this seems much more like a product created in response to the sugar price manipulations rather than anything bad or evil in and of itself.  There is and was a surplus of US corn, the sugar prices remained high relative to the cost of gearing up HFCS and there you have it.

The alternative to HFCS, sugar, is just as bad nutritionally.

The bottom line is that HFCS is just another type of sugar being pumped into the US food consumption.  While there are subsidies and so forth on the corn side and price manipulations on the sugar side the US Government is probably just doing what it has always done - skewing the market based on lobbying.

The real HFCS is evil created by us - the stupid US consumer.

In 2000 we consumed approximately 53 gallons of soft drinks per year (about a gallon per week).  By 2008 this decreased to a mere 47 gallons per year.  During this same time the proportion of "diet" drinks increased substantially (but that's another health story). During this entire time we continued to consume about 140 pounds of sweetener per year.  On the other hand, during the same period, our consumption of bottled water went from about 17 gallons/year to about 31.

We simply consume too much sweets.  Its not the fault of industry, of some evil HFCS corn-growing conspiracy, it us...  If we lived in Australia, as I mentioned last time, HFCS would not exist and we would be faced with the reality of our over-consumption of sweets:

Imagine 140 pounds (the average US consumption of sweetener per year) divided by 52 weeks equals almost 3 pounds of sweetener per week - close to 1/3 of a pound of sugar and HFCS per day. 

Is it any wonder we are fat? 

Personally I eat close to zero each day if I can - though I likely consume some extra if we do not eat at home (though I don't eat desert, drink sweetened drinks, etc.).  I cannot even imagine eating that much sweet crap each day.

No, I think all the HFCS "crisis" is merely a blame-based buggaboo fabrication by an aging, grossly overweight population groping around for someting to blame on decades of excess in the eating department.  Speculating on how things got to this state is probably fodder for more posts.

Personally I recall realizing around 1982 that I could no longer drink a soft drink without feeling ill afterward and haven't had any to speak of (unless there is absolutely nothing else) since.  I used to each more sweets and carbohydrates but, as I got older, I realized that I felt less and less well after eating them and eventually I stopped entirely save for a small amount of chocolate I eat every day which curbs any outstanding desire for sweets.

Well, at least I know that HFCS is no better or worse a buggaboo than big industry and big government.

Hopefully enough people will ignore it long enough and it will just go away.

No comments: