I can’t find the clip now, but there was an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher a few years ago where Maher was trying to draw attention to the fact that our agricultural system is, to a large extent, organized around the production of corn. Being that this was Real Time, Maher was promptly mocked by his guests, who seemed genuinely perplexed by Maher’s anti-corn tirade. The response Maher received wasn’t too different from what was faced by the first groups of people who began pushing against the pervasive use of corn in our food supply. Many people were either A) confused or B) indifferent and didn’t see how corn affected their lives in any negative way.
Increasingly loud concerns over obesity though, were enough to get lots of people riled up about the use of corn, and particularly, high fructose corn syrup. So much so that now, agribusiness is moving away from using the sweetener in some of its products (via the New York Times):
From the tomato sauce on a Pizza Hut pie called “The Natural,” to the just-released soda Pepsi Natural, some of the biggest players in the American food business have started, in the last few months, replacing high-fructose corn syrup with old-fashioned sugar.
ConAgra uses only sugar or honey in its new Healthy Choice All Natural frozen entrees. Kraft Foods recently removed the corn sweetener from its salad dressings, and is working on its Lunchables line of portable meals and snacks.
The turnaround comes after three decades during which high-fructose corn syrup had been gaining on sugar in the American diet. Consumption of the two finally drew even in 2003, according to the Department of Agriculture. Recently, though, the trend has reversed. Per capita, American adults ate about 44 pounds of sugar in 2007, compared with about 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup.
“Sugar was the old devil, and high-fructose corn syrup is the new devil,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior analyst at Mintel International, a market-research company.
Replacing high-fructose corn syrup with sugar is all well and good, but the problem isn’t necessarily that we use high-fructose corn syrup – Pizza Hut won’t be any better for you because the “sauce” contains real sugar – it’s that massive corn subsidies make high-fructose corn syrup artificially cheap. Which in turn makes it possible for large food manufacturers to produce more and more food which contains HFCS as its primary ingredient. The long, brightly colored aisles of junk food on the far left of any supermarket (you’re more likely to buy it that way, apparently) are only possible because HFCS is so damn cheap. That is the problem. Americans are consuming huge amounts of artificially cheap, artificially sweetened junk “food” at the expense of eating actual food. And as we all know, it’s having a hugely detrimental impact on American health. While it’s nice that some sodas will use sugar instead of HFCS, there remains the simple fact that its probably not a good idea to drink soda, or at least lots of it.
I don’t expect agribusiness to cut back on the amount of junk food they produce; they’re trying to make money, and if that means feeding us microwavable cream cheese filled pastries, then they will make microwavable cream cheese filled pastries. Putting pressure on agribusiness isn’t a bad thing, but if we want to restructure our food system then our best bet is to put pressure on our government to restructure our subsidies and regulations. Of course, if the post below this is any indication, that might prove to be very – very – difficult.
(photo used under a creative commons license from flickr user awrose)