High-fructose corn syrup
May 27th 2010 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
Americans are losing their taste for a sugar substitute made from maize
IN A sun-dappled yard, above the cheerful whoops of healthy children, one mother assures another that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener made from maize (corn), is, like sugar, “fine in moderation”. Yet fewer and fewer Americans, it seems, are convinced of the claim, made in a series of advertisements by the Corn Refiners’ Association, an industry group. Demand for HFCS declined by 8% between 2007 and 2009. Several fast-food chains and consumer-goods firms have ostentatiously dropped it from their recipes. Michelle Obama, the first lady, has expressed concern. Some Americans feel so strongly that they have posted spoof advertisements online, explaining that lead poisoning, Nazism and genital mutilation are also “fine in moderation”.
HFCS, which became a common ingredient in processed foods in the 1980s thanks in part to an abundance of subsidised maize, is cheaper than sugar. A rise in the price of sugar in recent years has increased the difference, yet big firms such as Pepsi and Kraft have substituted sugar for HFCS in many of their products. ConAgra, another big foodmaker, announced earlier this month that it had removed HFCS from its Hunt’s ketchup brand, and slapped a prominent label to that effect on the bottles. The move, the firm says, reflects consumer demand.
The most common complaint about HFCS is that it has helped to make Americans fat. But that idea is hotly disputed. The American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association argue that there is no direct link between obesity and consumption of HFCS in America, although both have surged in the past 30 years. Other studies have fingered HFCS, including one released in March by scientists at Princeton, which found that rats gained more weight eating it than table sugar. HFCS’s defenders blame perfidious sugar refiners for their bad press.
Another complaint centres on subsidies for maize, which, the theory runs, have warped America’s entire food chain. Yet high tariffs on imported sugar, to the benefit of America’s beet and cane farmers, have also helped to promote HFCS. Mike McConnell of the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that HFCS and sugar would be roughly comparable in price in a free market. In that respect, at least, the two products are as bad as each other.
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