Will the High Price of Oil Make Americans Skinnier?

Not because higher gas prices will spur people to walk or ride bicycles instead of driving. No, I’m thinking it might work like this:

— Notwithstanding the recent drop, high oil prices have driven a demand for ethanol made from corn.

— Accordingly, the price of corn is rising fast, with July contracts at $4/bushel, about 60 percent higher than last summer.

— With corn so much more expensive, food manufacturers who use corn in so many forms in so many foods will look for substitutes. As the writer Michael Pollan puts it, “Corn is the keystone species of the industrial food system… If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn.”

— Because corn was so cheap for so long, high-fructose corn syrup has become a common substitute for cane sugar. Pollan and others have argued that corn syrup is a great contributor to national obesity.

— Already, one boutique soda company has trumpeted its return to using cane sugar instead of corn syrup. “It’s better for you, it’s better-tasting and, overall, it’s better for the environment,” says the CEO of Jones Soda.

So, as higher oil prices continue to drive demand for corn-based ethanol, which drives the price of corn higher, which makes cheap corn syrup more expensive, which leads food manufacturers to seek out potentially less fattening sweeteners, will Americans get skinnier?


carltoncl

It's interesting to notice the taste difference between cane sugar and corn syrup sodas. In Australia there is a huge cane sugar industry so that sweetener is used in soda, here in the States of course we use corn syrup.

Can't say that sugar does it for me overall but if I were to choose I'd have to say Aussie soda tasted better.

Maybe Jones Soda is on to something?

G.V.Varma

No. Americans will continue to suffer obesity and many others on the other side of the globe will become skinnier.

abraxas

Corn subsidies and sugar import tariffs both contribute to the usage of high fructose corn syrup in lieu of cane sugar. It would be nice to see some of the tariffs dropped to further encourage the replacement of HFCS to see if a noticeable drop in obesity can be observed.

egretman

The current demonization of all things corn syrup is very amusing. I remember a time, in the 60's, when cane sugar was the big evil. It was the major cause of the drain of swamps for cropland. And it was made into that evil of all evils, processed sugars.

And we were assured, corn was brought to us by the New World and the American Indian. Clearly and demonstrably more politically correct. At least, back then.

RJS

It was my understanding that the corn used in ethanol was not the same as the corn we use in edible food products, so the effect on corn pricing wouldn't be 1:1 so to speak.

Granted there's only so much ground one can use to grow things, so there would be a pricing crunch of sorts, but not yet I don't think. (How much food does the .gov buy and destroy, anyone know?)

Anyway, what will make ethanol truly interesting is when we can use the whole corn plant. The husks and all...

The link of corn syrup to obesity is tenuous at best. I wonder what the relative sweetness between cane sugar and corn syrup is, and then what the corresponding caloric content is? Does the cane sugar required to produce X sweetness contain fewer calories than the corn syrup required to produce X sweetness? Hmm.

yelsa307

I'm all for getting rid of these cheap, obesity-causing ingredients. One of my friends decided to cut corn syrup from his diet and he actually had withdrawals. It's so hard to avoid too. I wonder what the percent of food you can buy at a regular grocery store is that contains it.

I'm also for New York banning trans fat. And I wonder how long it's going to take for people to really be against other artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

dpm

Even with high oil prices, doesn't the U.S. ethanol industry require huge government subsidies *and* tariff protection (from cheaper South American ethanol)? In such a grossly distorted market, it's hard to guess what might happen.

freetz

On the subject of tasting better: I think Whole Foods' generic sodas (at least the rootbeer and cream soda) have gone back to cane sugar, too. Also, the Mexican taqueria near me in Chicago sells Coke in glass bottles imported from Mexico made with real sugar, not corn syrup: It's completely worth the extra price.

egretman

If your concern is obsesity
Eschew externality
Instead confess
Eat less
Yes

sternydern

If is true that only smaller operations (as refered to in the Seatle PI article) like Jones Soda are able to make the switch from corn syrup to cane sugar, then it would only make sense that there would be a much smaller impact on our society.

Larger, mainstream companies (Coca-cola & Pepsi) would rather pass the added cost on to the consumer than go through such a major change, both in their factories and in the taste of their products which we have become accustomed to over the years.

kaszeta

dpm has the important point. Between the regulation, price supports, and incentives for both the sugar and corn markets, the market is so grossly distorted from a free market that it's difficult to even analyze. Simply compare what either sugar or corn syrup cost in the US to what they cost on the international commodities market.

Andy from Houston

Sodas with cane sugar are waaaaaaaaay better than sodas with high fructose corn syrup. You will have the agricultural industry talking about double blind tests where people cannot tell the difference, but I think they are full of it.

Just go to Mexico and drink the coca cola and compare it to the crap in the USA.

Not even close.

wesleyb41

If you are a Dr. Pepper fan, you likely know of the Dublin Dr. Pepper made in Dublin, TX. It is one of the older bottling centers and they chose to continue to use pure cane sugar for their product. I highly recommend it.

yxhuvud

Note that soda also is very dependent on the water quality. That factor often makes soda taste different in different countries despite them having the same sets of ingredients.

This doesn't come up often in the US but it is very common in Europe with eastern European and Middle Eastern coke being imported since it is cheaper than the local variant.

rvman

If you find something unpalatable, make it cold. Ag can easily rig the test by doing the taste test at around 33F. We in the US drink our colas with tons of ice, because the taste difference between corn syrup and sugar is minimized by the low temps. Taste test by drinking a US Coke, and then a 'Mexican' Coke, at near room temperature. My experience is that most people find the US Coke nasty, and the Mexican one surprisingly good at high (50-60 F) temperature. A similar experiment can be done with normal and "Dublin"(Texas, not Ireland, though an Irish DP should work, as it would most probably be sugar-based) Dr. Pepper.

The wars on saturated fat and sugar were fought using money supplied by big ag - mostly Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto. They wanted to replace the products they didn't dominate - lard and sugar - with products they did - corn oil and corn syrup. In so doing they introduced trans-fats and whatever it is that is supposed to be wrong with corn syrup (some glycolic issue with metabolism that I don't fully understand), which are far worse than the 'problems' they replaced.

Trans-fat not only raises LDL, it lowers HDL - the good cholesterol. Saturated fat does raise LDL, but it appears to have no effect on HDL. Trans-fat has been linked in studies directly to coronary disease, at least via correlation. Saturated fat requires a chain via cholesterol, no study has found a direct statistical correlation between saturated fat intake levels and heart disease, controlled for trans-fats. Only between saturated fat and cholesterol, and then separately between cholesterol and Coronary disease, has a link been established. The lipids which are supposed to explain the link between these two correlations have never been demonstrated to be an actual link - it is still a hypothetical causation.

Read more...

pkimelma

It is important to note that High fructose corn sweetener does not have the natural sucrose mix of fructose and glucose (as the name implies, they skewed the fructose content by about 5%) and this may be part of the problem (in terms of obesity). They do it because fructose tastes sweeter. But, it is believed that this mix affects insulin response (and so fat store) in a strong way. Although there are other worries about the amount of corn filler we eat (high carb, low protein, low fiber, corn "allergy" response, etc), this is not known to be a factor in HFCS.

synapticmisfires

I remember that I felt very betrayed when I saw that Jones Sodas used High Fructose Corn Syrup, so it's really refreshing to see the switch. I have read in magazines like men's health that high fructose corn syrup is far less healthy than even the much demonized cane sugar.

I never thought of the role of ethanol in raising food prices. When I saw the headline I was all ready to say how own-price inelastic fuel consumption is. Well this certainly could help make Americans moderately more healthy. Manufacturers have had a tendency to put corn in everything because it's so cheap, that could be ending. I don't really foresee a change in this, but I've long been amused by Fritos' ingredients: Corn, Corn Oil, Salt. If only there was a way to get a salt-like product from corn.

synapticmisfires

Also let me point something out. I don't think Coke and Pepsi will be reluctant to change to sugar once the price of corn rises. Coke already sells pop with sugar for a few weeks around Passover. The Passover coke (with a yellow cap) has sugar in it because for reasons I don't know Jewish people can't technically have high fructose corn syrup during that time. (I am a gentile, so I don't know how that ties in with the dietary restrictions, just that it does)

jenn

I think there would be a time scale issue here...

How long would a price hike in corn have to last to convince a company to make the switch back from HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) to cane sugar, assuming no consumer pressure for more "natural" ingredients? How long would it take for enough companies to make the switch that the overall American diet has effectively switched from HFCS to can sugar? How long after Americans have made the switch would it take to see the health benefits of switching from HFCS to cane sugar (i.e. less diabetes, less obesity, etc.)?

By the time that all of that happens, can one even predict that the market would still favor use of cane sugar over HFCS on a large industrial scale?

badger99

> Larger, mainstream companies (Coca-cola &
> Pepsi) would rather pass the added cost on to
> the consumer than go through such a major

I don't understand this statement.

first - we aren't just talking about soda here. we are talking about the whole food industry - and as someone who works closely with industrial baking - it is hardly static. recipes are changing constantly.

second - why wouldn't coke or pepsi be interested in making more money? i.e. reducing their cost will make them more profitable. passing the cost on to consumers would only encourage the other one to keep their prices the same, wouldn't it?

I do know that the profit margins on coke and pepsi are gigantic - so maybe this added cost isn't enough of a chunk of that to even notice?