Sunday, October 25, 2009

On the Subject of Subsidies

By the 1990s, King Corn reigned supreme as the most predominant sweetener in U.S. processed foods.  We've already talked about the benefits of HFCS for producers of processed foods.  But why is HFCS cheaper than sugar?

In surveying the on-line literature, i find that many sources ultimately come back to either Michael Pollan's works or the Tufts' study: Alicia Harvie and Timothy A. Wise, "Sweetening the Pot:  Implicit Subsidies to Corn Sweeteners and the U.S. Obesity Epidemic," Global Development and Environment Institute Tufts University, GDAE Policy Brief No. 09 - 01 February 2009

The Tufts' study does a good job demonstrating how HFCS became cheaper as a result of the fact that corn prices are kept low by U.S. farm policies. "We find that U.S. farm policy effectively lowered corn prices and HFCS production costs, offering HFCS producers an implicit subsidy of $243 million a year, a savings of $2.2 billion over the nine-year period, and over $4 billion since 1986. For soda bottlers, the main consumers of HFCS and among those most heavily implicated in public health concerns, the savings amounted to nearly $100 million per year, $873 million over the nine-year period, and nearly $1.7 billion since the wholesale adoption of HFCS by the soda industry in the mid-eighties."  The costs are in part kept low as a result of overproduction; and of course inflated sugar prices (resulting from the efforts of the South Florida Sugar giants--among others?-- ) plays a role.

Yes, that is Nikita Khrushchev, who was apparently most impressed by U.S. corn....
(Photo source)

"About 2.7 million bushels of corn is piled 60 feet high on the ground beside full elevators at an agricultural cooperative in Ralston, Iowa."
Photo Source: Alexai Barrionuevo,  "Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies" The New York Times, November 9, 2005

Some additional sources of information:

The sordid history of food politics: Meet King Corn

Source: State Fair of Texas 2008, at Fair Park, Dallas, Texas, Exhibition of corn by-products, Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Attribution required (Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 3.0)

Corn byproducts...  

Synthetically produced (i.e. in a lab) ethanol was first produced in the early 1800s.  In the 1840s, an ethanol fuel was used as a source of energy for lamps.  In the mid-19th century corn starch came onto the scene.  Model T Fords could be fueled by ethanol as early as 1908.  Throughout prohibition, moonshiners made the most of corn-derived alcohol.  By 1921, we had corn syrup. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the process for Glucose Isomerization was developed, which enabled the creation of High Fructose Corn Syrup (see the post on Glucose Isomerase.)

By the mid-1980s, HFCS was in a large number of products widely available in the U.S.  By the mid-1990s, HFCS had almost completely displaced sugar as the sweetener used in processed foods. (Source)  Are we now seeing the slow reversal? First came Jason's Deli (the first chain to remove HFCS from its menu completely.)  Now Star Bucks' food offerings are HFCS free.  We also have Pepsi Throwback, Jones Soda, etc etc.  And there's some evidence that consumers find this move to cane sugar appealing

Well, that shift away from HFCS won't happen if the Corn Refiners Association has a say!  According to the website, CRA and its predecessors have been representing the U.S. corn refining industry since 1913 (this is the year listed on their website). Predecessors?

Well one group that has a long history and works side by side with CRA is the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which was formed in 1919. In the decades following its creation, AFBF worked tirelessly for good loans, irrigation projects, and benefits for those citizens it represented.  The AFBF supported the creation of U.S. Grain Growers, a group that lasted only two years. Interestingly, the AFBF website relates the frustration farm leaders felt by the inability of the grain farmers to organize. Via the Farm Bureau, AFBF and other linked groups, became a powerful force that would affect American politics indelibly. AFBF, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has unceasingly worked to influence American agricultural policies across presidencies and throughout the decades.

Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz is a key figure in the emergence of corn as King.  This blog cannot exhaust the long and windy history of American agripolitics, but the bottom line is that Mr. Butz apparently didn't see a problem with over-production.  One of the best sources for a concise overview is permalinked here: "Is corn making us fat? Michael Pollan argues that U.S. farm policy promoting overproduction of corn has made America overweight—and made big food companies very happy," New York Times Ufront, Dec 8 2003

During his presidency, Clinton had some highly publicized struggles with the argri-lobbies. The Corn (Ethanol) Lobby's emphasis on biofuels has resulted in ethanol somewhat politically overshadowing other corn byproducts at times.  Obama, too, seems to be "bent over a corn cob" when it comes to ethanol.

Ethanol and biofuels of course have a sticky sort of residue they leave behind in any debate:  is Ethanol environmentally viable?  Is Ethanol really a worthwhile alternative fuel? Well, many political leaders have found it difficult to come out against Ethanol as a result, at least in part, of groups like AFGF.

I don't pretend to know the answer to the ethanol debate, so in the interest of objectivity, i will cite from a source very upfront about its politics: Mother Jones, Betting the Farm (Nov/Dec 2009 issue): "Don't ever, ever get crosswise with the ag lobby. They will sink you."  This article also put the "Farm Bureau" in a slightly dfferent context than what i found on the AFBF site. "'Farm Bureau' may sound rural and heartlandish, but in reality it's a multibillion-dollar trade association cum insurance company with branches in all 50 states and close ties to agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland and Novartis, not to mention a few dozen farm-state senators."

Again we come back to the Corn Refiners Association, a group whose techniques and mission are discussed in some detail in earlier blogs on this site.  CRA represents corn refiners' interests writ large, including both HFCS and ethanol.

Some of the big conglomerates, prominently featured on CRA's site as member organizations,  responsible for widespread dissemination of corn-derived products include:
  • Cargill, Incorporated: grain/agricultural commodities; producing livestock feed, pharmaceuticals, and processed foods.
  • Archer Daniels Midland Company: grain-derived processed products, especially beverages, processed foods, livestock feed, cooking oils, and industrial products
Both ADM and Cargill have gained quite a reputation both for their profit margins, as well as their business practices.

We come now full circle to the Corn Refiners Association campaign to promote HFCS:

Is it just me or are processed foods pretty much across the board, by their very composition, not nutritious?  Maybe it depends on how you define nutritious.... The family pictured above certainly looks happy and healthy--no obese, diabetic children there.  and i bet their pantry is just full of HFCS-laden products....  See? HFCS makes good things even better... (well for the conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland anyway...)

There's simply no better way to end this entry than with a photograph of a water tower in Rochester, Minnesota, painted to look like an ear of corn.  (Photo source)  Ah, corn is certainly king in this great land of ours.

Additional sources:

The sordid history of food politics: First came Big Sugar

Sugar tariffs? Corn subsidies?  When and why did it become so political and contentious?  And what does Cuba have to do with it? How abut NAFTA?  Why is King Corn so defensive?

The late 1880s and 1890s were a tumultuous time in U.S. Courts as sugar refineries scored a number of key victories, enabling them to become bigger and more powerful as trusts, and demonstrating the extent to which the sugar industry could maintain prices that would generate profits for those refineries.

The New York Times archives contains relevant reporting about the "Sugar Trust's" victories.  Kind of funny that Big Business was (a) up to the same tricks then as now, and (b) the lovely politicians of our great nation could be bought back then just as they can be now.

From the first page of The New York Times, August 19, 1894:

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the increasingly powerful "Sugar Trust" purchased large quantities of Cuban sugar and had an interest in influencing tariffs in order to maximize profits.

If Rick Berman were a vampire or otherwise somehow had the ability to have been alive and kicking in 1902, i would think he would probably be running the American Literary Bureau, which was no doubt a "non-profit"!

More sources on the Sugar Trust empire (this one mentions the Cuba connection):

Indeed the folks involved in sugar refining were investing in Cuban sugar and wanted to maintain control over the refining process and expand their business empire.  Even Milton S. Hershey got involved, building a sugar refinery town in Cuba he named Central Hershey, which supplied some of the sugar needed for his chocolate factory.

It took decades for the U.S. Government to trim down the "Sugar Trust" in terms of size and power.

Just as one example of the power that Big Sugar continued to wield: Sugar even played a role in the U.S. embargo on Cuban goods.  The incidents leading up to the U.S. embargo on Cuban goods involved sugar at many of the twists and turns.  Here are some examples:


The events leading up to the embargo

The U.S. Sugar industry, although it may not have been quite the monolith it was in the late 19th century, still exercised quite a bit of power politically. 

Of course, there are still some powerful players in the US sugar world (especially in South Florida!), but as an entity, Big Sugar as a monolith would never quite hold the same powerful position again.  In large part due to trust busting, but also in part, because more players emerged onto the scene.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The myriad charges against HFCS

Several of the "charges" levied against HFCS have been referenced in previous posts on this blog; one of the troubling issues for me is that there seems to be little consensus.  It is clear that some "scientists" and scientific/medical organizations have countered existing studies without saying much more than "more research needs to be done."  The studies that have been done have often been done under extreme conditions (i.e. involving unrealistic levels of fructose, etc.)  Of course, it is not unusual for such studies to be conducted under these circumstances.  The problem this set of circumstances poses for consumers interested in gaining clarity on HFCS is that there's so much politics involved.  There are few definitive, objective, politically independent, scientific studies about HFCS and the effects it has on digestion, as well as other health-related side-effects of HFCS consumption.

Unfortunately all I can do is talk about this deficit; sadly my background and training doesn't make me qualified to judge reports i read from scientific/medical journals.  I can research it until i am blue in the face but i can't do more than be a critical reader, checking footnotes and noting sources.

So, what are the charges levied against HFCS? In the interest of objectivity, i will word these "charges" in such a way as to suggest that we do not have definitive answers. The litany of charges includes:

  • HFCS may be a contributing factor to the increasing numbers of obese Americans
    • due to the fact that it is so widely used (it is present in items one would never suspect of containing sugar and even in some items that prior to the invention of HFCS would not have contained sugar)
    • due to the fact that it may not stimulate feelings of fullness (because it may actually cause leptin resistance), thus leading to a lack of satiation
  • HFCS may be linked to an increase in diabetes cases and may cause insulin resistance
  • HFCS may contain trace amounts of mercury
  • HFCS may cause memory impairment
  • HFCS, when heated, may be a factor leading to bee colony collapse (due to the formation of  Hydroxymethylfurfural)
  • HFCS, due to it being metabolized in the liver,  may cause a rapid increase of high triglycerides
  • HFCS, again due to how it is metabolized, may be linked to fatty liver disease
  • HFCS consumption may cause a significant increase in the concentration of uric acid 
  • HFCS may have some negative impact on collagen in the skin
  • HFCS seems to have some impact on the way the body stores and absorbs minerals
  • HFCS will cause scales to form on the palms of your hands and your fingernails may fall out as a result.

Ok, that last one was a joke. 

If you know of some "charges" i left out or if you have inputs on anything related to these issues, please post!

Monday, October 12, 2009

King Corn takes on Big Sugar

Those groups so vigorously and valiantly defending High Fructose Corn Syrup with multi-million dollar advertisements are facing a treacherous and unforgiving foe:


A "newswire" press release from Richard Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom entitled "New Ad Campaign Pushes Back Against Big Sugar's Bogus Attacks on High Fructose Corn Syrup" describes the role played by Big Sugar in this public relations war.  According to Richard Berman, Big Sugar has "propagated" "blatant inaccuracies" about High Fructose Corn Syrup; they have "spoon-fed misinformation" to the public about HFCS.

Berman contends that Big Sugar is responsible for a "disingenuous and baseless attack within the food industry" unlike any he has seen in his 30 years in the business. He explains that "The sugar industry is relying on urban myths and marketing gimmicks to perpetuate this misinformation about high fructose corn syrup."  What misinformation? Well, although Big Sugar doesn't want the public to believe it, "leading nutrition experts are in universal agreement that the two products are nutritionally equivalent."

Wow!  Experts in universal agreement????  That's a first!  Prior to reading this "news story" I would never have believed it to be possible that leading experts were in universal agreement about anything!  I'd say that's something to celebrate.  Like world peace or something.

Ok, so (big surprise, i know) i researched Big Sugar.  The first thing I found was some pretty damning articles from Time Magazine; after perusing a few and not recognizing the names, i realized the articles were all over 50 years old.  Then i found a pretty ridiculous advertisement from the early 1970s promoting sugar consumption on the grounds that it is just a source of energy.  I found some more recent articles about tariffs and international trade agreements.  (Basically, domestically made sugar prices are inflated as a result of huge tariffs placed on imports of sugar from other countries; there are also apparently some domestic sugar companies who engage  in unsavory practices to keep the prices high.)  And I found references to the dark history of foreign sugar cartels.  But the closest thing I found to a lobbying group that would mirror the Corn Refiners Association, Center for Consumer Freedom, or American Beverage Insititute, was the Sugar Association.

Ok, so let's return to the ring, where the bloody fight is being waged between Big Sugar and King Corn.

What has the Sugar Association actually said about High Fructose Corn Syrup?  It's frankly sad that they resort to such name-calling, mud-slinging and unprofessional behavior. 

What about the Sugar Association's multimillion dollar television- and full-page newspaper- ad campaign attacking poor High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Um, well actually there are no commercials.

Why is the Corn Refiners Association and Center for Corn Freedom (oops....  CONSUMER not corn!) spending tens of millions of dollars to counter one press release?

Who is actually most actively promoting sugar at the expense of High Fructose Corn Syrup?


just kidding.  but seriously, the majority of the efforts the Corn Refiners Association and Center for Consumer Freedom are fighting are actually led by consumers, consumers who don't work for any lobbing group or otherwise stand to gain monetarily from their efforts.  Consumers who are willing to pay more for foods with shorter ingredient lists.  Consumers who, for whatever reason, prefer "table sugar" to "corn sugar," which is glucose enzymatically isomerized to fructose.


In the interest of impartiality, below is a link to Berman's latest newswire release in which he describes Big Sugar's "disingenuous and baseless" attack against poor High Fructose Corn Syrup:

"New Ad Campaign Pushes Back Against Big Sugar's Bogus Attacks on High Fructose Corn Syrup"

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Glucose Isomerase

Just a spoon full of.....

High Fructose Corn Syrup
makes the medicine go down?

Hmm, just doesn't have the same ring to it...  and the melody doesn't really work. 

Now if we believe the repeated assertions from the Corn Refiner's Association or the Center for Consumer Freedom that High Fructose Corn Syrup is "simply a kind of corn sugar" then what does it matter?  It's just a name.

But what IS HFCS?  How is it made? Is it really just "corn sugar," nutritionally no different than any other form of sugar?

Boiled down (no pun intended), High Fructose Corn Syrup is glucose that has been enzymatically isomerized into fructose. 


Ok, so during my free time over the past few months i literally scoured professional journals, medical reports, etc until i found authoritative sounding descriptions of both what HFCS is, as well as how it is made.  Over the course of this research, I found patent records, EU regulations, professional journal articles, medical studies, etc.  According to the the reports and articles i read, the central component in HFCS production is the enzyme used in the isomerization process, Glucose Isomerase.  For the record, none of the sources I found suggested some other process or otherwise contradicted the fact that Glucose Isomerase plays a key role in the production of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The most detailed description I found of Glucose Isomerase (GI), how it is formed, and its role in HFCS production, was contained in The American Society for Microbiology's academic journal, Microbiological Review.  In the article "Molecular and Industrial Aspects of Glucose Isomerase,"  Snehalata Bhosale, Mala Rao, and Vasanti Deshpande describe the production of HFCS and break it down into a 3-step prcess:
"The production of HFCS from starch comprises three major processes: (i) liquefaction of starch by α-amylase, (ii) saccharification of starch by the combined action of amyloglucosidase and a debranching enzyme, and (iii) isomerization of glucose by GI."

This article does not delve into the politics of the debate; it's as rigidly objective as any academic report could possibly be.  There is no discussion of digestion or subejctive statement about how great it is that there is such widespread use of HFCS.  They describe the enzymatic isomerization processes in excruciatingly minute detail.  They also detail the reason behind the genetic modification of Glucose Isomerase.

So why, if I am so opposed to HFCS, do I reference this study?  Because it is informative.  It describes in more detail than I have seen anywhere else what HFCS is.  It doesn't take sides.  The authors are not from a lobbyist group;  they are scientists who work in a laboratory.

And in conclusion, i cannot help but contend that anyone who says HFCS is "natural" and just a "corn sugar" stands to benefit monetarily from these utterly ridiculous assertions....

"The horror! The horror!"

The above image, an Anti-obesity advertisement from the New York Health Department, depicts what appears to be a soft drink being poured into a glass of human fat.

It should come as no surprise that the top opponent in this gruesome fight is.... yes, that's right: Rick Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF)!!!!  The CCF's PR campaign focuses on the central question: "When did the Big Apple become Big Brother?"  As i have said before, in my view, any time Rick Berman is involved there is a sleazy residue.  Even though I see both sides of the argument and don't come down firmly on one side, Berman's involvement makes me want to support a soda tax.  CCF of course assaults the soda tax as another example of "Nanny Culture;" taxes should not be used, CCF contends, to socially engineer change.  CCF suggests that there should be no soda tax but rather exercise/fitness should be promoted.  So let's tax all people who don't exercise!  wait...  oops nanny culture rears its ugly head.   what about making health insurance relative to the individual's BMI?  Wait, even airlines can't manage to get the public to accept extra charges for morbidly obese passengers who, yes, cost more due to extra fuel consumed and may render the seat next to them uninhabitable.

To be fair, it's not just CCF that is in opposition.  The public, perhaps nearly evenly divided, is being quite vocal.  One article on the tax has stirred up a reaction that is a good example of the public's very strong views and people's desire to express them.  So far, this New York Times Sunday Magazine story has 53 replies.  It was originally posted on September 23, 2009, under the title "Following Up on a Sugary Tax That’s Hard to Swallow," by Randy Cohen.

As an aside, one of the 53 replies is indeed from our beloved Audrae Erickson, patron saint of HFCS.  And to my great amusement, one of the 53 replies is also TO the charming Ms Erickson.  My thanks go out to "healthy in michigan because I avoid HFCS."  I applaud you.

September 30, 2009 8:44 pm Link
To Audrae Erickson,
Do you really believe what you are saying? I would put you in the same category as those who still claim that global warming is not caused by human activity. Sure, HFCS is not the only cause for our obesity, but it surely is one of the main ones. You can pay your scientists to conclude whatever is convenient for you, but remember, the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. And according to the vast majority or research and testing, you are part of the problem.
— healthy in michigan because I avoid HFCS


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fructose High

Card source:  is such a terrific place for funny ecards....

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bringin' out the big guns

Richard Berman, "Dr. Evil," the food industry's "hired gun"

What does it mean when a company or lobbying group hires Richard Berman?
USAToday: "Companies hire Richard Berman to be their public face as they take on what are sure to be unpopular battles."

CBS, 60 Minutes, Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. "Dr. Evil":  "Berman’s the booze and food industry’s 6'4", 64-year-old weapon of mass destruction. They hire him to front for them in the 'food wars.'"
He's a "a hired gun."
No matter what you think about this successful PR man, Berman has a habit of achieving his goal, which is "getting people to think twice." (source: Meet Rick Berman)

>>How does he do it?
He owns/runs through the for-profit Berman & Company, which is the umbrella company housing over a dozen companies, some non-profit, through which he channels his messages.  Among them: Center for Consumer Freedom, American Beverage Institute, Center for Union Facts.  See the Wikipedia article on Berman for more specifics on each.  Another source for information, however scathing it may be: Berman Exposed.)  These companies take donations from various industry giants, whose interests they support with various press releases, advertisements, etc.  If you take the Center for Consumer Freedom as an example: In addition to "anonymous donations," they take in large sums of money annually from everyone from Coca-Cola, to Tyson's Chicken, to Wendy's fast food chain, and many many more. And as mentioned in a previous blog, this particular non-profit started with S600,000 in seed money from tobacco giant Philip Morris.

>>Something seems fishy here. 
But since this man was trained in law and certainly no novice in PR campaigns,  it can be assumed that he runs a tight ship (from the perspective of legal codes): but, ok bear with the simple-minded American with no legal training for a sec:  how can a non-profit first of all take in millions through donations, and secondly be run by a corporate for-profit umbrella company (whose sole owner, R. Berman, is a very wealthy man indeed)?  Legal loop holes, i guess. 

The status non-profit is justified by CCF on their 990 tax form with the following as the company's stated purpose:

>>What are some efforts in which he played a role? 
Berman's companies have been engaged in efforts to combat groups such as MADD, PETA, major labor unions, and a variety of environmentalist and medical/nutrition-oriented groups; they have fought both raising minimum wage and the Americans with Disabilities Act (on the grounds that both are just too expensive for employers), supported Uniroyal's Alar; supported companies like PayDayLoans;  engaged in a campaign to suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe levels" of mercury contained in fish is too low; worked to combat smoking bans in bars and protect the rights of smokers (and of course protecting the bottom line of Big Tobacco in the process), and they have also fought the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limits; the list goes on.

>>And Berman's latest:

See also the television ad:

"Bizarrely maligned by what amounts to an urban myth"...  only a real pro could come up with a statement like that!

>>Now back to the original question: 

What does it mean when a company or lobbying group hires Richard Berman?

It means that they realize the sophomoric efforts in which they have engaged to defend their interests have not worked; they need to pull out the big gun: Richard Berman. 

Is it just me or is the Corn Refiners Association starting to look ever more like Big Tobacco?

Additional sources used for background research: (source used for the 990 information) (kind of funny that Marion Nestle is no fan of CCF because they cite HER as the primary authority in support of HFCS.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Center for Consumer Freedom acquits HFCS

OH MY GOD all this time i was wrong.

HFCS doesn't make me sick.  It's my fault my body can't digest high-content fructose products, such as those containing HFCS.  After all, as the CRA has told us, a sugar is a sugar.  The body can't tell them apart.  No idea why the one "corn sugar" makes me sick when none of the others do....  could it be... the fructose content???  OH MY GOD THAT IS ALL A LIE! I AM MALIGNING HFCS! How dare i!

Never mind the fact that i can eat gobs of desserts (just ask anyone who knows me) and not get sick as long as there's no HFCS in it, but if i get more than a tiny amount of HFCS, i am gasping for breath and unable to breathe, with a painful and distended abdomen...  that's my fault.  i am aberrant or something.

What i find interesting is who is behind the ads (you may have seen them on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News or CNBC, or the full-pager featured above in major newspapers): The Center for Consumer Freedom.

Soooo, what's the big deal about that?  Center for Consumer Freedom: don't we want consumers to be free?  Sounds like a good thing.  and plus it's a nonprofit.  that gives it an air of credibility, right?  sure, but do keep in mind that they were founded with money supplied originally by the Philip Morris tobacco company.  And since their creation in 1995, they have backed tobacco companies, fast food chains, and processed food companies. Not sure what "nonprofit" even means given how much their top execs make (think, 8 digit "fees" for management of CCF).  Did i mention the numerous and often sizable donations they get from a wide range of fast food chains, to major processed food companies, etc.

More related posts will follow shortly...