Corn, corn, corn; mountains of corn as far as the eye can see. The images of the piling up Iowa harvests were one of a number of poignant visuals brought forward by the 2007 documentary King Corn (available on Netflix). The fact is, US production of corn has been growing rapidly since the 1970s and this year American farmers will plant an unprecedented harvest – 94 million acres of corn crop. This is the largest since 1944 and will take up roughly a third of the country’s harvested cropland.
This expanse has been largely driven by a change in direction of US farm policy four decades ago. Previously, agricultural production was tightly controlled to ensure overproduction did not drive the prices that farmers could get for their harvests too low and helped ensure that available agricultural land was not overworked and the environment was not unduly harmed.
This New Deal for agriculture, that followed World War 2, was repealed in 1973 by the then USDA Secretary Earl Butz, whose goal was to plant ‘fencerow to fencerow’ and whose mantra to the farmers was ‘get big or get out’. Producers of corn would now be paid to grow more, not less.
Butz, under Nixon, wanted to make food cheap and accessible to all and it is not hard to see why. The lives of previous generations were hard and much of what was earned was spent on putting food on the table. The theory went that with lower food prices families would have more disposable income to spend on other things and therefore drive the economy forward.
However, the resulting pile up of corn has meant that someone or something somewhere had to consume it all. Now that corn was cheap, it made various refining processes cheaper too. One end product of this was High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that has now overtaken cane sugar as the number one consumed sweetener in America.
To say that this was wholly the result of the Butz legacy would be too simplistic. Other changes and policies surely helped. Technological advances in agriculture, for example, helped to increase corn yields dramatically. Whilst imposed sugar import quotas that have been in place since the 1930s have consistently driven US sugar price up, making the production of HFCS as an alternative more viable financially. To this day, US sugar prices are artificially maintained above world market prices by the government to try to stimulate domestic industry. Nevertheless, Butz’s policies, that largely remain today, certainly set in place the new rules of the game – those that encourage perpetual corn crop expansion.
Whatever the causal factors, because of their affordability, HFCS and other corn derivatives are now an added ingredient in much processed food. There are over 45,000 items in the American supermarket and over a quarter of them contain corn. It is even more prominent in the fast food industry:
“If you take a McDonald’s meal, you don’t realize it when you eat it, but you’re eating corn. Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries. Half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they’re fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you’re at McDonald’s, you’re eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn”, said Michael Pollan in the King Corn documentary.
The result is such that the bodies of most people who consume large amounts of processed foods are essentially c(orn)olonised. We know this because scientists have a way to ascertain the main constituents of any animal’s diet since the foods we eat leave their own carbon-based unique isotopic signatures. So, as Michael Pollan tells us in his 2008 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, at the molecular level, those who eat a lot of corn-derived industrial and corn-fed animal products essentially look like walking stalks of corn.
Since 15-20% of calories a typical American eats and drinks is derived from HFCS, and more from corn-fed animals like beef and chicken, surely we need a new biological classification for this corn consuming creature we have created. A Cornavore perhaps?
The problem is not confined to the US, not even to the western world. Widespread liberalization and globalization has opened the floodgates of global trade and the exponential growth of processed food and drink industries abroad. Some of this comes from domestic industry growth, which has powered the rapid expansion of US exports of different types of HFCS to the world. They rose from 290,000 metric tons in 2000 to 565,000 in 2011 (USDA data).
Most, however, comes from sales by foreign companies. Coca-Cola in Latin America, for example, has so deeply penetrated the lives of the people that it has been dubbed ‘Latin America’s second religion’. According to the company’s 2007 report, just in one small Central American country, Guatemala, on average, every man, woman and child consumes 170ml of its products alone. Add to that all the other sodas (Pepsi, local Super Cola and others), the real consumption of soda is likely to be even higher.
Since greater consumption of soft drinks has proven biomedical connectionsto rising obesity, diabetes, dental carries and other inflictions, this is contributing to the fact that 28.6% of Guatemalan men and 46.6% of women are obese, whilst in some departments up to 70% of adults exhibit signs of diabetes. And what gives these products their addictive sugary taste? High Fructose Corn Syrup.
This may not seem problematic on the surface. After all, what does it matter if we switch one type of sugar for another? Surely the rising problems of obesity, diabetes and other diseases in the western and developing world are an individual problem of greed and overconsumption. However, despite what the corn processing industry tries to tell us in their latest attempts to rebuild the image of corn derived sweetener, “sugar is not sugar” as far as HFCS is concerned.
The sugar industry has fought back against claims made by the corn processing industry. It recently filed a lawsuit against false advertising messages of the ‘sugar is sugar’campaign that began airing in September 2010. Today’s court hearing, reported by ABC, was presented with the on-going debate:
1. Corn syrup is not natural, as was claimed in the commercials:
“You can’t just cut open corn and find high fructose corn syrup. It has got to go through multiple steps which is unlike sugar, which can be found in sugar and sugar beets, which my clients grow and produce”, said Adam Fox, prosecution lawyer for the sugar producers.
2. The body can’t tell the difference between sugar and corn-derived sugar. This is misleading for several reasons. Last year, Dr Mark Hyman wrote an excellent pieceoutlining why scientifically HFCS is different as far as your body is concerned and how this leads to medically negative effects. In summary, the molecular make up in HFCS is different enough to that of sugar that it causes a much more rapid absorption of fructose into the blood stream, causing shocks for the whole system:
“Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers lipogenesis (the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol) this is why it is the major cause of liver damage in this country and causes a condition called “fatty liver” which affects 70 million people. The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin – our body’s major fat storage hormone. Both these features of HFCS lead to increased metabolic disturbances that drive increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and more”
“In addition… high doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging. Naturally occurring fructose in fruit is part of a complex of nutrients and fiber that doesn’t exhibit the same biological effects as the free high fructose doses found in “corn sugar”.
The takeaway: Cane sugar and the industrially produced, euphemistically named “corn sugar” are not biochemically or physiologically the same.”
3. Finally, studies have found that, because of the process involved in producing HFCS, it contains contaminants including mercury that are not regulated or measured by the FDA. Hardly a natural phenomenon.
So in the age of the Cornavore, the dilemma becomes how to reverse the worrying trends and decolonize our bodies of corn? Yes, some responsibility will lie with the individual as we can all try to make healthier choices. However, with empty sweet corn calories also often being the cheapest available in advanced and developing natons (fast food, sodas, snacks and other processed foods and drinks), many families close or below the poverty line (15.1% of US citizens are officially in poverty) simply cannot afford to eat healthier. The 2008 Food Inc documentary (also on Netflix) is a sound testament to that. And it is the poor and the marginalized, who are universally disproportionately affected by the negative health effects of our obesogenic food environments.
It is therefore at the policy level that we can make real change; rebalance food and agricultural policies to support healthy, nourishing, wholesome foods and stop subsidizing those foods and the industries behind them that have made non-communicable diseases the biggest killers in both the advanced and developing nations. Let’s start by signing Food & Water Watch’s petition to make the American food system healthy, environmentally sustainable and fair for all.
What do you think about the prevalence of HFCS in the diets of the American People? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
Like the article? Be sure to sign up at the top of this page to receive future entries directly to your inbox (make sure you click on the confirmation link that will be sent to you by WordPress).