A Halloween health horror in U.S. corn fields

Martin Cheek

Every October around Halloween, the Swank Farm in San Benito County hosts a popular cornfield labyrinth that brings in families to get lost in a maze of maize. Folks encounter scary stuff popping out from behind the cornstalks that makes for good old-fashioned fun. But across the United States, there’s something truly sinister creeping out of our nation’s cornfields – something killing hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

Perhaps, like many scary movies shown during Halloween, this cornfield peril comes in the guise of something sweet and seemingly innocent that most people don’t suspect could do them any harm. The killer is often known by the acronym HFCS – high-fructose corn syrup. And this man-made monster even comes with its own Dr. Frankenstein: Earl Butz, who once worked as the Secretary of Agriculture under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s.

Our Halloween story starts off with the 1973 Farm Bill in which Butz advocated a “fencerow to fencerow” production of corn and soy. With a philosophy of “get big or get out,” Butz advocated the growth of big agricultural corporations over small family farms. Excuse a really bad pun, but ironically, the former Secretary of Agriculture should go down in American history as “Get Big Butz.” His corporate corn policies have indeed caused Americans to get big butts. Butz’s policies brought about the mass production of corn across America by heavily subsidizing this grain with taxpayer dollars.

The massive surplus of corn coincided in the mid-1970s with the United States imposing sugar tariffs and sugar quotas that increased the cost of sugar. American food manufacturers realized that high-fructose corn syrup (derived from cheap corn, thus costing half the price of sucrose-based sugar) could be put into food and increase their profits. Soft drink producers switched to HFCS. The federal subsidies on corn also provided cheaper grain for cattle growers – thus reducing the price of meat and increasing the consumption of hamburgers and other fatty beef products.

The average American now consumes about 37.8 pounds of HFCS a year, and 46.7 pounds of sucrose a year. The problem is that the human body metabolizes these sugars in different ways. In sucrose, fructose molecules are bound to a glucose molecule, forcing the body to go through an extra metabolic process to use its carbohydrate energy. The fructose molecules in HFCS, on the other hand, are free and unbound, making it easier for the body to absorb – and turn into fat. Our nation’s increase of HFCS consumption in the American diet has coincided with us becoming more obese.

Last year, a research team at Princeton University released a study supported by the U.S. Public Health Service that showed that rats given a HFCS diet gained “significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.” The consumption of HFCS in the rats also “led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.”

In 1970, about 15 percent of Americans could be defined as meeting the criteria of obesity. Now, more than one-third of Americans are obese. Much of the blame can be placed on the Farm Bill that Congress passes annually. This legislation is influenced by the powerful corn lobby to provide billions of dollars in subsidies for America’s corn production.

Thanks to the Farm Bill, we enjoy cheap and plentiful food. But that food comes with externality costs, including the health care costs that come with medical problems from obesity such as diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and cancer. Our health issues decrease our job productivity, another economic cost. And our agricultural systems consume large quantities of fossil fuels, adding to the impact of climate change – which comes with its own set of expensive price tags.

No doubt Earl Butz did not know what health horror he released from America’s cornfields when the Farm Bill of 1973 was passed. A soda or candy as a treat now and then – especially at Halloween – probably won’t hurt us. But because these indulgences cost so little, we now consume way too much HFCS than is good for us. Our over consumption of HFCS has us lost in a corn maize of health horrors.

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