04 October 2011

U.S. taxpayers spent $16.9b on junk food subsidies since 1995

This past September, CALPIRG released a report (pdf) titled, "Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food", which found that, among billions of dollars spent each year in federal subsidies for commodity crops, a steady flow of taxpayer dollars is supporting production of corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), corn starch, and soy oils.

Since 1995, U.S. citizens have so far paid $16.9 billion dollars subsidizing junk food, while simultaneously spending only $262 million subsidizing apples.

In San Francisco, taxpayers spent $2,762,295 each year on junk food subsidies, but only $41,950 each year on apple subsidies. In Los Angeles, taxpayers spent $13,010,286 on junk food subsidies. Of all U.S. cities, New York City topped the chart for the largest junk food subsidies, with $28,044,146.

The report also calls out the corn industry for supporting advertising campaigns in favor of high-fructose corn syrup, responding briefly to three of their main points:

1) “It’s made from corn”: it is certainly the case that HFCS is manufactured using corn as the raw ingredient. But the nutritional value of the end product has much less to do with its starting point than how it is manufactured—and here, the HFCS production process concentrates the sweetest, least-healthy portions of the corn and disposes of all of the rest.

2) “It’s nutritionally the same as sugar”: as discussed in the main text, HFCS is a mixture of fructose and glucose, much like ordinary table sugar. In HFCS, the two molecules are not chemically bound together, while in sugar they are; still, this biochemical distinction does not appear to make any nutritional difference. With that said, there are some varieties of HFCS that contain a higher concentration of harmful fructose than ordinary sugar, and some studies have shown that consuming very large quantities of HFCS poses more of a health hazard than consuming an equivalent amount of ordinary sugar.

3) “Like sugar, it’s fine in moderation”: a true statement. But as the rise in junk food production and the obesity epidemic show, neither HFCS nor sugar are being consumed in moderation. Because HFCS is a cheap, ubiquitous ingredient, it’s used in high concentrations in many foods, and Americans are eating too much of it.

In 2009, the Washington Post reported that randomly sampled commercial products containing high-fructose corn syrup tested positive for mercury contamination in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first or second-highest labeled ingredient.

Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last three decades, with seventy percent of obese 5- to 17-year-olds showing at least one risk factor for heart disease. This decline in health strongly correlates with increased usage of high-fructose corn syrup in a great majority of foods, and the steady rise of the taxpayer-funded "junk food industrial complex" which is keeping major U.S. cities jam-packed with cheap, unhealthy foods.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/nooe