How can we trust a government to tell us what’s best for our healthcare when it’s subsidizing a corn industry that produces a food additive researchers believe may be tied to rising levels of obesity and disease? Anthony Bradley looks at a new study that raises moral questions about the consequences of the corn subsidy. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Government Subsidies Not So Sweet for Health

By Anthony Bradley

It’s yet another example of the unintended consequences of government meddling in the economy, a new study shows that large amounts of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) found in national food supplies across the world may be one explanation for the rising global epidemic of type 2 diabetes and resulting higher health care costs.

The study, “High Fructose Corn Syrup and Diabetes Prevalence: A Global Perspective,” conducted by a group of scholars led by Michael Goran and published in Global Public Health, reports that countries that use HFCS in their food supply had a 20 percent higher prevalence of diabetes than countries that did not use the additive. Thanks to government subsidies of the corn refining industry, HFCS is unbelievably cheap compared to sugar, and has made its way into foods and beverages all over the world. The Obama administration has an opportunity to show international leadership by ending corn subsidies in the United States and encouraging other nations to follow as a good first step in lowering health care costs and promoting good nutrition.

According to a California Public Interest Research Group and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund 2010 report, federal farm subsidies contribute significantly to the nation’s obesity epidemic. The reports shows that from 1995 to 2010, $16.9 billion in federal subsidies went to companies and organizations in the business of producing and distributing corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils. Using California as a model, the report explains the math this way: Taxpayers in the San Francisco area spend $2.8 million each year in junk food subsidies and Los Angeles taxpayers spend $13 million. The bottom line is that, while advocates of corn subsidies focus on the benefit to farmers and food suppliers, the possibility of long term negative effects on public health is ignored.

From an international perspective, the Goran study reports that out of 42 countries examined, the United States has the highest per-capita consumption of HFCS at a rate of 55 pounds per year. The second highest is Hungary, with an annual rate of 47 pounds. Canada, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Belgium, Argentina, Korea, Japan and Mexico are also relatively high HFCS consumers. Germany, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Egypt, Finland and Serbia are among the lowest HFCS consumers. Countries with per-capita consumption of less than 1.1 pounds per year include Australia, China, Denmark, France, India, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Uruguay.

These correlations are particularly troubling in light of the fact that HFCS’s association with the “significantly increased prevalence of diabetes” occurred independent of total sugar intake and obesity levels, according to Goran. The production of HFCS is simply aggravating poor health around the world. According to recent estimates, 6.4 percent of the world population is currently diabetic, and that number will rise to 7.7 percent by the year 2030. Another study cited by Goran showed that across the globe, the number of people with diabetes rose from 153 million in 1980 to 347 million in 2008. These increases are projected to affect developing countries disproportionately, with an estimated 69 percent increase in the number of diabetic adults as compared to a 20 percent increase in developed countries.

Dr. Amy Kristina Herbert, a pediatric dentistry resident in Washington, explains the relationship this way: “it is the subsidizing that keeps the foods that contain [HFCS] low cost [to consumers] and more attractive to low income populations. It is a major additive in fast food, as is corn in general which, since subsidized, keeps fast food cheap as well. Anything processed tends to have corn/HFCS in it which is a major cause of the overconsumption of high energy, low nutrition foods, or empty calories, which leads to weight gain and diabetes.”

In our national debate over health care reform, most Americans have accepted the fact that we have a moral obligation to ensure that our fellow citizens have access to basic health care, and that government may play a role in that task. But what if the same government that purports to be aiding our quest for a healthful life with one hand is with the other hand dumping money into the production of foods that undermine that quest? With the mountains of research from scholars and advocacy groups building, it seems that a prudent first step in reducing diet-related diabetes is for the U.S. government to withdraw from the corn production industry altogether and stop making bad nutrition artificially inexpensive. As the main global producer of HFCS, the United States has a moral obligation to lead the world by letting prices provide the information we need to encourage healthier choices here and around the world.