Enid just wrote a great post on how you can make personal choices to buy and eat healthy. I’m going to continue her criticisms that healthy options are more expensive and take a look at systemic problems.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been a fairly controversial ingredient for many different reasons. HFCS, or just corn, can be found in foods that would surprise you. In nearly every item on that shelf in my fridge (ketchup, apricot jam, barbecue sauce, and fruit juice), you can find this one ingredient.
What is shocking is that HFCS consumption per capita has been greatly on the rise for decades:
We have increased our collective consumption of added sugars and sweeteners by 17% from1970 to 2006. From that USDA infographic, we have increased consumption in every food and especially in Fats and Oils at an increase of 61%.
As reported in “Feed Grains Backgrounder” by the USDA (authors:Linwood Hoffman, Allen Backer, Linda Foreman, and C. Edwin Young), “The United States dominates global feed grain trade, especially in corn.” We simply produce the lion’s share of corn in the world. In 2000/2001, we produced nearly 43% of the world’s production of corn. The utilization of corn in all products in the United States seems only natural when we are the world’s supplier of corn. Indeed, the criticism from the Food Movement and more liberal sources is that through trade policies such as agricultural subsidies and tariffs on sugar produced in other countries, food manufacturers turn to HFCS as a cheaper way to sweeten things. By subsidizing corn production, the US government artificially suppresses prices on every food that uses HFCS from ice cream to soda.
The flight of processed foods from sugar to HFCS highlights one of the greatest challenges to our food industry and the system between farm and table that we have in place. Fattening foods are geared toward making themselves cheaper. If sugar gets too expensive, you make your product cheaper by switching to HFCS. What is ironic is that our food system, the food industry, does not function to provide optimal nutrition to society, but rather it seeks to maximize profits.
The problem of food consumption is two fold: fattening foods are very inexpensive and the price of nutritious foods is high. In an article in Environmental Health Perspectives, Scott Fields writes:
Compounding the problem, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is that fattening foods are supported whereas healthy fare isn’t. “We put maybe one-tenth of one percent of our dollar that we put into subsidizing and promoting foods through the Department of Agriculture into fruits and vegetables,” he says. As a result, the price gap between high-sugar, high-fat foods and more nutritionally valuable fruits and vegetables is artificially large. That means in supermarkets and restaurants, red meats, sugar- and fat-loaded products, and fast foods not only appear to be the best buys but in proportion to even moderate salaries are downright cheap.
Solutions to this problem are difficult to sort out. The article continues to say that raising the price of corn will barely make a dent in processed foods. Moreover, HFCS accounts for only 4.05% of corn use in 2008/2010. Thus, the solution cannot simply be to strip all agricultural subsidies from corn. What has happened over several decades of farm subsidies is a boom in corn production. We now have a farming industry in place that produces more and more corn as farmers have chosen to plant those seeds over other crops.
The system we have in place incentivizes production and use of corn over fruits and vegetables. The blog La Vida Locavore notes:
The USDA site also says that 4.1% of U.S. corn goes for high fructose corn syrup. That means that since 29.9% of all U.S. cropland harvested was planted in corn in 2007, 1.2% of all U.S. cropland harvested in 2007 went for high fructose corn syrup. That’s only slightly less than the 1.5% of U.S. cropland devoted to vegetables or the 1.6% of U.S. cropland devoted to orchards. How totally and completely sad.
Reducing subsidies for corn must only be a part of any solution. Increasing the production, and thereby the supply, of nutritious fruits and vegetables might be one way of incentivizing better choices at the market. This might be through increased subsidies to orchards or vegetable producers.
Alternatively, if you can increase demand, you might see an adjusting supply and resolving price. We might return to the CA A.B. 1473. Perhaps with enough support, some level of a community (from county to state to federal) can demand that a salad might be more accessible and cheaper than a Big Mac through constitutionally granted (by popular vote) regulatory powers.
But the solution cannot stop there. I came across this table from a study (previously cited), however, that is really interesting:
Despite having more resources, those in the 131-350% of poverty bracket do not necessarily eat less sweetened things. I think this might suggest that an aggressive educational campaign about diet and food needs to be a big part of any regulations or incentives moving forward.