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To End Obesity, Start by Dismantling Sugar Quotas

Justin Rohrlich September 8, 2010 8:30 AM|

       During National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month the White House has the opportunity to change the antiquated, unhealthy sugar quotas and tariffs that foster production of high fructose corn syrup.

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and First Lady Michelle Obama, who's taken up the cause during her husband’s first two years in office, is actually in a position to do something about the problem that costs the United States as much as $147 billion annually, in direct and indirect costs.

One night, say, over a plate of quinoa and hummus, all Mrs. Obama has to do is persuade her husband to dismantle the destructive sugar quotas and tariffs that have, to borrow a phrase, directly and indirectly, contributed to America’s obesity epidemic perhaps more than anything else, by fostering production of high-fructose corn syrup.

A proclamation from the White House issued a week ago includes language like:

“During National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, I urge all Americans to take action to meet our national goal of solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.”

“We must do more to halt and reverse this epidemic, as obesity can lead to severe and chronic health problems during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and asthma.”

And, “As president, I created a Task Force on Childhood Obesity to marshal the combined resources of the federal government to develop interagency solutions and make recommendations on how to respond to this crisis.”

Parents like Mrs. Obama, who's said that she won’t feed her daughters foods containing HFCS, are hard-pressed even to find products without it.

What’s so bad about HFCS?

A recent study out of Princeton University showed that “rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.

“In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.”

"Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn't true, at least under the conditions of our tests," said psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight, and sugar addiction. "When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they're becoming obese -- every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don't see this; they don't all gain extra weight."

The study explains:

High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are both compounds that contain the simple sugars fructose and glucose, but there are at least two clear differences between them. First, sucrose is composed of equal amounts of the two simple sugars -- it is 50% fructose and 50% glucose -- but the typical high-fructose corn syrup used in this study features a slightly imbalanced ratio, containing 55% fructose and 42% glucose. Larger sugar molecules called higher saccharides make up the remaining 3% of the sweetener. Second, as a result of the manufacturing process for high-fructose corn syrup, the fructose molecules in the sweetener are free and unbound, ready for absorption and utilization. In contrast, every fructose molecule in sucrose that comes from cane sugar or beet sugar is bound to a corresponding glucose molecule and must go through an extra metabolic step before it can be utilized. In the 40 years since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as a cost-effective sweetener in the American diet, rates of obesity in the US have skyrocketed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1970, around 15% of the US population met the definition for obesity; today, roughly one-third of the American adults are considered obese.

While it may not surprise that Nabisco Wheat Thins (KFT) and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (K) contain HFCS, it's somewhat startling to realize that Subway Nine-Grain Wheat Bread contains more HFCS than any one of the nine grains in the name.

What also may not surprise is that financial interests and political chicanery are the reasons HFCS remains the dominant sweetener in this country.

Much has been made of the influence of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the HFCS puzzle, and the story bears repeating.

Longtime ADM CEO Dwayne Andreas, who wrote the $25,000 check that financed Richard Nixon’s “plumbers” in the Watergate break-in, also pushed -- successfully -- for Nixon to sell $700 million worth of US grain to the USSR in 1972, with ADM acting as the go-between to execute the deal. The ensuing lack of supply begat domestic demand, causing crop prices to skyrocket. In 1973, Earl “Rusty” Butz, President Nixon's USDA chief, did away with agricultural price supports introduced by the Roosevelt administration that were intended to prevent farmers from getting hurt financially by limiting supply when bumper crops would have otherwise flooded the market.

They were also meant to keep consumers from being squeezed by releasing warehoused grain when crop yields were low and prices would otherwise naturally spike. Butz ginned up political support for the administration by encouraging farmers to plant "fencerow to fencerow" while the government provided them with subsidies to cover the difference between market prices and production costs.

Of course, growing “fencerow to fencerow” did exactly what one would expect: Prices took a dive as production exceeded demand, which didn’t sit too well with ADM, the nation’s largest corn refiner.

Now, there’s only so much corn one person can eat. Archer Daniels Midland suddenly needed to figure out how to stimulate sales of all that food.

Then, a Japanese technique called “wet milling” caught the company’s eye. Wet milling turned corn kernels into what Archer Daniels Midland hoped would be a low-cost alternative to sugar -- the now-ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup.

While high-fructose corn syrup was an alternative to sugar, it still wasn’t possible to manufacture cheaply enough to make it a low-cost alternative.

It just so happened that Florida sugarcane growers were in the middle of a push to get Congress to impose a tariff on foreign sugar, which was exerting downward pressure on market prices. Andreas decided to help fund lobbying efforts by Florida sugarcane growers to convince Congress to impose a quota on non-US sugar, which had been flooding the US market and keeping prices down.

In short, Archer Daniels Midland backed its competition’s political agenda and, when Ronald Reagan took office, the sugar tariff was swiftly ushered into place. Naturally, sugar prices escalated (artificially), eclipsing the cost of Archer Daniels Midland’s high-fructose corn syrup, and soft-drink makers like Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) switched in short order to the cheaper alternative.

Perhaps this is why a statue of Ronald Reagan stands at Archer Daniels Midland headquarters. A token of appreciation from one free marketeer to another for promoting what is, essentially, a patently socialist policy.

Andreas doesn’t seem to view our capitalist society through the same lens as most others. In an interview, he said, "There isn't one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market. Not one! The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians. People who are not in the Midwest do not understand that this is a socialist country."

Minyanville professor and Houston fund manager Ryan Krueger says, “The sugar tariff is the biggest scam since one-hour Martinizing. For the first time in human history, more than a billion people this year will be classified as 'chronically hungry.' We'll artificially sweeten prices for US farmers, bankrupting poor farmers in Africa or South America, and then turn around and send them food aid.”

Krueger continues, “I'd love all the upside and none of the downside in a game where my competitors are barred from playing against me, yet if I still somehow fail to perform the scoreboard operator nonetheless puts up points for me -- as long as I vote for the right referee when his contract's up.”

Money manager Shawn Hackett, president of Hackett Financial Advisors, a firm with a focus on agricultural commodities, tells Minyanville, “Why we don’t trade sugar at global prices like we do every other commodity, I have no idea. Old lobbies and old political ties die slowly. This is one of the few things that you just shake your head at and wonder how it hasn’t changed.”

And Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of the Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, tells Minyanville, “It’s disingenuous and naive for the president to issue a proclamation that shines a light on childhood obesity, when we’ve had in place for decades, agricultural policies that promote obesity and give people cheap, easy access to unhealthy food.”

Simon says that, “if we wanted to create conditions to combat the obesity epidemic, we could so that,” and notes, “The best example I can give of the major disconnect in US ag policy is that we don’t currently even grow enough fruits and vegetables domestically to meet the federal government’s dietary standards.”

This would require annual harvested fruit acreage to increase to 7.6 million from 3.5 million. Vegetable acreage would need to increase to 15.3 million from 6.5 million. The USDA’s own numbers show that most of this increase “is due to higher acreage for legumes. Meanwhile, acreage for starchy vegetables would need to decrease.”

Not something the corn lobby want to see happen. Though, anyone who would like to make a dent in the wholly preventable health epidemic called obesity, would surely welcome.

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