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Stop Federal Corn Subsidies to Decrease Childhood Obesity

November 23, 2010

Broadway Malls

The childhood obesity epidemic can be reversed, but nobody ever said it would be easy. Here is the question posed by journalist Mike Lillis on The Hill:

Why, when faced with a childhood obesity epidemic, would the federal government continue to subsidize corn-based sweeteners suspected of contributing to the problem?

Why indeed? This question was also asked by research physicians headquartered at the Mount Sinai Medical Center (Google Docs PDF), who took out an “op-ed ad” in The New York Times asking why Congress subsidizes corn starch but not cauliflower. What they object to is…

[…] the abundance of cheap, unwholesome food sweetened by the synthetic sugar substitute… Consumption of HFCS has increased tenfold since 1974. The obesity epidemic in America’s children precisely tracks this trend.

The op-ed piece is signed by three doctors. Philip Landrigan is a professor of preventive medicine and the Dean for Global Health. Lisa Satlin chairs the pediatrics department, and Paolo Boffetta is deputy director of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai. They believe that farm subsidies have made the price of HFCS go down, which leads to its wide use in food and drinks. By contrast, they note that the prices for vegetables and fruit have increased by more than 1/3 during the same time period:

It’s no coincidence, the doctors claim, that childhood obesity — which has tripled over the past 30 years — is skyrocketing at the same time that HFCS consumption has done the same.

Dr. Pretlow also thinks that discontinuing federal corn subsidies would help. The problem is, any legislation that can be seen as hurting farmers will inevitably draw opposition, lots of it, and from more than one direction. People with sentimental politics automatically feel sympathy for the embattled American farmer they have heard so much about. And it’s true, the small family farm is in more trouble than ever. But these food corporation enterprises are not normal mom-and-pop farms. They are mega-production facilities run by international conglomerates. Maybe they don’t need quite so much encouragement from Washington, D.C. As P. J. O’Rourke says,

U.S. farm policy, besides not doing what it’s supposed to, does do what it isn’t supposed to, and lots of it — the law of unintended consequences being one piece of legislation Congress always passes.

But why pick on corn? Because when there is so much of it, a lot of it gets converted into high fructose corn syrup. And what is wrong with that? In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow writes,

High fructose corn syrup is a new, cheaper, easier to use sugar, which currently is being added to thousands of foods. It’s now in soft drinks, candy, ice cream, bread, crackers, salad dressing, jelly, pickles, soup, applesauce, juices, even baby food and some types of baby formula.

Although nobody has conclusively proven the connection yet, obesity rates began to rise drastically right around the time when the use of HFCS started to be so pervasive. In fact, back in 1987, when Dr. Douglas Hunt published No More Cravings, he hinted that something might be amiss. From his own experience and from the experiences of his patients, Hunt realized that people tend to become addicted to certain particular junk foods. One of the cases he wrote about was Ellie the Fritters Freak, who was addicted to two varieties of breakfast pastry, apple fritters and bear claws. His description says,

Ellie was obviously out of control. On testing we found her addicted to both sugar (corn) and yeast…

It’s interesting that Dr. Hunt differentiates between cane or beet sugar, and corn sugar. Many years later, in 2010, a Princeton Neuroscience Institute study showed that lab rats became more obese from consuming HFCS than from regular sugar, even when the number of calories was the same. Hilary Parker wrote a very comprehensive and understandable article about this. Here is an excerpt:

This creates a fascinating puzzle. The rats in the Princeton study became obese by drinking high-fructose corn syrup, but not by drinking sucrose. The critical differences in appetite, metabolism and gene expression that underlie this phenomenon are yet to be discovered, but may relate to the fact that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles.

A Farley Katz cartoon in The New Yorker depicts four orcas standing on their hind fins around a conference table, as a man in a suit tells them,

‘Killer Whale’ is terrible branding. From now on, people will call you ‘Happy Silly Fun Fish.’

Well, the Corn Refiners Association must have hired the same public relations firm. The CRA is asking the government if High Fructose Corn Syrup can change its name to “corn sugar” in hopes of escaping the substance’s bad reputation. If only life were that simple.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Taking on childhood obesity by attacking subsidized corn starch,” The Hill, 10/26/10
Source: “Why Are We Subsidizing Childhood Obesity?” (PDF), Google Docs
Source: “A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain,” Princeton.edu, 03/22/10
Source: “A New Name for High-Fructose Corn Syrup,” The New York Times, 09/14/10
Image by Ed Yourdon, used under its Creative Commons license.

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