The U.S. produces so much corn so cheaply that Americans have become quite clever at inventing uses for it, from fuel to power cars and trucks to the polymers in plastics. But most of all, we eat it. Our cats and dogs eat it. Even the cattle, chicken, hogs and fish that we eat eat it. In the form of high-fructose corn syrup, it is cheaper than sugar and as ubiquitous as advertising. Harvesting about 286 million tons of corn a year is no accident. It's U.S. industrial policy.
But is the obesity epidemic an unintended consequence of that policy?
A no-brainer, say nutritionists. They see a simple progression. As much as 57% of the corn we produce becomes inexpensive animal feed that helps keep meat prices down. But it also makes the meat fattier--and consumers fatter--than if the animals were fed grass.
About 5% of our corn is refined to high-fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper, sweeter and, because it is a liquid, easier to transport and mix into foods than sugar. Beverage and food manufacturers see that low price as a signal to use the high-fructose cocktail in virtually everything, substituting it for more nutritious ingredients--not just for sugar--in peanut butter, fruit juices and spaghetti sauce.
From 1972 to 2002, the amount of sugar and syrup produced annually per American grew 21%, from 104 lbs. to 126 lbs., according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same time period, the percentage of syrup sweetener in that total grew from less than 1% to nearly 50%.
But corn refiners say it's a mistake to blame their products for obesity. They note that in countries that consume almost none of the syrup, such as Mexico and Russia, obesity is still a problem. Corn growers and refiners also insist that the body treats sugar and high-fructose corn syrup identically, an argument that has recently been challenged by scientists studying sugar metabolism at the molecular level.
So the question is trickier than it seems. Although U.S. taxpayers subsidize American farmers generously--to the tune of $20 billion a year--that's not likely to change anytime soon. Besides, corn is so cheap that even a farm policy that doubled the crop's price might make only a marginal difference in grocery-store prices.
To discourage consumption of what they see as unhealthy corn products, food activists have proposed a variety of measures, from junk-food taxes to tough labeling laws. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says even something as simple as labeling products as healthy or--in the case of highly sweetened carbonated beverages--as unhealthy would help consumers make better food choices.
Soft-drink makers and the corn growers whose products sweeten them will mightily resist anything that threatens to come between them and their consumers. But the nutrition activists believe that the wind may be shifting their way. "The soda-pop industry is more powerful than we are," Jacobson says. "But the obesity epidemic has a power of its own." --By Eric Roston