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There was no relationship between obesity and poverty — until high-fructose corn syrup

A new study out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville traces a disturbing correlation.

woman measuring man's waistline
Photo credit: rawpixel on Unsplash
  • Before 1990, there was no noticeable correlation between obesity and poverty.
  • Within a quarter-century, impoverished regions showed a massive uptick in obesity and type 1 diabetes.
  • Researchers chart the relationship between "food deserts" along with obesity levels.

In 1841, Orlando Jones patented alkali starch extraction, a process that separated corn starch from kernels in what is known as wet milling. One year later, Thomas Kingford opened the first commercial wet milling plant in the States. Corn, an agricultural product dating back at least 6,000 years to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, was a natural fit for this process given its abundance. It would take another two decades for chemists to realizes corn starch could be used as a sweetener.

Beginning in 1864, the process of producing corn syrup remained relatively the same for a century. Then, in 1967 an enzyme conversion method was created to commercialize the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). There are three processes involved:

  • Removing starch from dried, shelled yellow #2 dent corn
  • Converting this starch into syrup through acid hydrolysis
  • Converting this syrup into high fructose corn syrup, in which dextrose sugars are converted into sweeter fructose sugars

On its own, corn syrup is not nearly as sweet as cane or beet sugar, which is why this cheaper alternative, HFCS, was invented. While the "high" part makes it sound like an anomaly in the sweetener world, most sugars contain 50 percent fructose. HFCS contains 55 percent.

Sugar is sugar is sugar, regardless of how soda manufacturers label their sweetly saturated beverages as being the "healthy option" for containing "real" sugar. That said, corn's meteoric rise to the top of the sweetener list has as much to do with economics as nutritional value, of which there is little. The crop is heavily subsidized — between 1995 and 2010, corn was one of seven crops receiving $170 billion from the federal government.

And yet little of that corn actually feeds us: 40 percent is used for ethanol production, 36 percent as animal feed (which, in a sense, does end up feeding us). Even then, we utilize startlingly little of the remaining 24 percent. Indeed, according to recent research,

Much of the rest is exported. Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

Subsidies have made HFCS cheap to process and purchase, a benefit food manufacturers have enjoyed even as waistlines expand and diabetes rates soar.

Now, a new study out of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, published in the online, open-access journal, Palgrave Communications on December 11, goes one step ahead of what we've already known about HFCS's role in the obesity epidemic. The researchers findings? HFCS is particularly linked with obesity among the poor.

As study coauthor Alex Bentley, who heads the UT Department of Anthropology, notes,

We found that the relationship between low income and high rates of adult obesity in the U.S. is not observable until the early 1990s. As recently as 1990, this was not a detectable problem.

Using decades of data from the CDC and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the researches matched obesity rates and median household income. In 1990, the data show no correlation between income leave and obesity rates. By 2016 there is a strong correlation between the two.

Poor people in America are disproportionately affected by obesity. In the decade from 2004 through 2013, obesity increased about one percent on average among the top 25 wealthiest U.S. counties. Averaged among the 25 poorest U.S. counties, the obesity increase for that decade was more than 10 percent.

Bentley notes that 2016 marked "peak obesity" in America, stating that this is exactly one generation following peak HFCS use, which is a sweetener that became excessively used in cheaper foodstuffs in the mid-'90s. As more processed foods included HFCS and the rise of organic foods caused produce and meat prices to increase, people in low-income communities had little choice but to consume heavily processed foods laden with cheap filler.

With over 100,000 Americans dying each year due to obesity-related diseases and two-thirds of American adults being overweight, the reduction in gut microbiome diversity will be a hard obstacle to contend with in future generations. Given all that we're learning about the necessity of a robust and diverse microbiome for overall health, the fact that corn is an essential ingredient in so many food sources is disastrous to our guts.

And this is affecting the poorer among us most:

In 2015, over 35 percent of the population was obese in U.S. states where median household incomes were below $45,000 per year, whereas obesity was less than 25% of state populations where median incomes were above $65,000.

While sugar and excess carb intake is one major reason for this trend, the researchers specifically cite HFCS, writing that it went from no usage in 1970 (when it was commercially introduced as an additive) to sixty pounds per capita in 2000, totaling roughly half of an individual's sugar consumption per year. In 2016, they continue, sweetened beverages accounted for 7 percent of household food expenditures.

How to stop this trend? The answer is simple — stop purchasing products containing HFCS — yet in practice this isn't as easy. As long as farmers are incentivized to produce corn at surplus, manufacturers will shave pennies off production costs by using it as a sweetener. Since we have an insatiable sweet tooth — that's what addiction does to a body — cutting down on sugar is highly unlikely.

We need to cut back on sugar and we need the government to stop subsidizing corn. This basic guide offers a foundation for lessening intake, including cutting out soda completely, reading labels more closely, and how to stop eating dessert for breakfast. As someone who went from a tablespoon of honey in my Earl Grey to drinking only black coffee, I can vouch that your taste buds eventually appreciate broader flavor profiles than "sweet." It takes some getting used to, but when you realize what's at stake, it's worth the effort.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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