Sounds like a headline from the tabloids, eh? But in fact it’s to some degree accurate – although it’s not a deliberate act – to say your government makes you fat. It’s another one of a case of unintended consequences that so bedevil our increasingly complicated world. But in this case we know who to blame: former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.
Butz was born and raised on an Indiana farm and once he entered office as Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture he fundamentally changed what we call the Farm Bill. Prior to Butz the government funds provided to commodity farmers (corn, cotton, soy beans, rice…) were intended to tide them over from a year when prices were below the cost of production to a year when they could sell their products at a profit.
They were loans that began under Franklin Roosevelt which many economic conservatives decried as “socialist,” but that were actually just a form of insurance. It wasn’t a bad policy and its primary (and intended) effect was enabling some farmers to keep their farms during bad times. Butz changed the policy from one that provided insurance to one that created price supports. He wanted farmers to grow as much as they could every year and if that resulted in more product than the market could bear, then the government in effect bought the excess. The result was to almost completely remove market forces from those commodities.
But here’s where it bites us and the government supports obesity. Because price supports encourage farmers to grow as much corn as possible by making it profitable even when it wouldn’t ordinarily be, products made from corn are dirt cheap and there are a lot of them. (Check out my review of King Corn.)
Nature and market abhor a vacuum so, a surplus of corn created a search for ways to use the excess. Ethanol fuel was one solution and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was another.
The first significant use of corn syrup was in soft drinks. It was (and still is) cheaper than cane or beet sugar and so Coca-Cola and Pepsi jumped on it. Within short order the syrup was the sweetener of choice in most sweetened beverages. Initially this was simply a swap from sugar (sucrose) to fructose and while it had a huge impact on the sugar industry for consumers it was (apparently) no more than swapping one form of nutritionless calories for another.
But it may not be that simple. Since the introduction of HFCS in 1970 and 2000 the consumption of fructose has increased 100 times while the consumption of sucrose has only declined 50%. In other words, we’re getting a lot more calories from sweeteners than we ever have. Furthermore, fructose isn’t metabolized in the same way sucrose. The result that our bodies and brains don’t recognize the calories (as they do with sucrose) in the sweetener. The consequence of this is that in addition to the calories gained from the soft drink, people are inclined to eat as much as they did in the past and so consume more calories than they did in the past.
But that’s not all.
Corn syrup has also became a popular sweetener in foods such as cookies and granola bars where it has the added advantage of keeping such products moister than sucrose. And, in addition to adding sweetness, HFCS also enhanced some savory flavors much as monosodium glutamate does. A couple of decades back MSG got a bad rap for the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. And while it’s probably true that a lot of Chinese restaurants in this country relied too much on MSG to make up for poor ingredients and bad technique, subsequent studies have largely debunked the allergy myth. Nevertheless, in response to the MSG backlash, food processors began adding HFCS to everything from tomato sauce to frozen hamburger patties to TV dinners. In doing so they bumped up the calorie count in each of these foods. And those additional calories are empty calories offering no nutritional value.
Although additional studies are needed, the evidence that HFCS is contributing at least indirectly to obesity in this country is strong enough to consider seriously. In the meantime continuing subsidies for corn insure that the federal government is at least in the business of indirectly promoting the use of high fructose corn syrup – and so quite possibly obesity as well.