Rethinking Healthcare

A sugar by any other name costs as much

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If sugar is sugar is sugar, and there is no cost advantage to be gained in mixing supplies, the way to saving money becomes simpler. Use less sugar.

I have argued here for some time that many of the problems we define as "obesity" and try to fight on the demand side of the market are in fact supply problems.

We subsidize unhealthy choices not out of malice, but because when the policy began they were healthy choices. Or we thought they were.

The present American food supply industry emerged from choices made with good intent in the 1930s and 1940s, aimed at bringing more calories and protein to diets that sometimes verged on malnourishment. The impact of those subsidies has spread worldwide, to the point where even Third World farmers can't compete with subsidized imports.

So we return to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or corn sugar as the industry now wants it called. Right now it's just a marketing campaign, but the industry wants the FDA to let HFCS be called "corn sugar" on ingredient lists. And it's putting political dollars where its mouth is.

By itself the change is harmless -- most research says there no major difference between sugar from corn or from cane. (It's true some studies disagree.) And it won't end the controversy either. Advocates will still call the corn product "poison."

The truth is more prosaic, as Marion Nestle writes at her blog Food Politics:

HFCS started out at one-third the cost of table sugar. Growing corn to make alcohol changed all that.

The process of subsidy, marketing, and politics has gone on for decades, and it's now once more in the marketing phase. Food processors no longer get a cost break using corn syrup, against beet or cane sugar. So why not call it corn sugar?

Well, consider the cookie maker. Right now he can mark his ingredient list as having "sugar" and "corn syrup" separately. Sometimes this lets him put sugars further down the list of ingredients. No more. Now consumers will see "sugar" and "corn sugar" next to each other, and get the message.

But there's a larger problem for food suppliers. If sugar is sugar is sugar, and there is no cost advantage to be gained in mixing supplies, the way to saving money becomes simpler. Use less sugar. And market things that way.

So it will have to be across the food spectrum. If empty calories are no longer cheap it's possible more people can be convinced to choose real food.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure