Just what is the cost of cheap corn?

Looked at one way, there’s an easy answer. In 2012, U.S. taxpayers paid about $2.7 billion to prop up the corn industry, in the form of direct payments and crop insurance subsidies.

The true cost, however, is actually much higher, as the billions in government aid have led to the proliferation of sugar-laden, heavily processed foods.

There are indications that the extreme amounts of added sugar in these foods, as much as an increase in caloric intake and a reduction in physical activity, are contributing to the high rates of obesity, as well as other chronic health problems.

A recent report details the mounting evidence linking excess sugar consumption with myriad health problems, and shows how the beverage and food industry has tried to keep it quiet.

But at a time when health care is shifting its focus from treating illness to preventing it in order to cut costs, we cannot afford to ignore something with a likely annual price tag in the tens of billions of dollars.

That means making clear to consumers the health implications of a high-sugar diet, and changing food policy to support less the foods that are making us sick.

Sugar comes in many forms now, including, yes, sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks and baked goods, but also yogurt, bread, canned fruit, ketchup, spaghetti and barbecue sauce, and even crackers.

Sugar is, especially in the form of taxpayer-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap additive. It is also likely highly addictive and, at the high levels now being consumed, very unhealthy.

The new report, from the Center for Science and Democracy, says that U.S. intake of excess sugar increased 25 percent from 1970-2000, mirroring an increase in obesity rates so great that Maine, at 28.4 percent of all residents, is merely in the middle of the pack.

Sugar intake has declined somewhat in the last few years, but Americans still now consume about three times the daily amount of sugar recommended by the World Health Organization.

The report cites mounting evidence linking excess sugar consumption to weight gain, not only because of the calories but because of its impact on metabolism, hormones and blood sugar levels.

Overconsumption of sugar also is connected, in that report and in other research, to a legion of other health issues, including hypertension and heart disease.

The cost is enormous. Obesity alone represents an annual cost of $190 billion, or a full one-fifth of annual medical spending.

Making people informed of this growing body of research will help somewhat.

But that will be counteracted by industries selling the highly processed products, which by their nature are more profitable and more easily marketable than the healthier whole foods that should make up the bulk of one’s diet.

A better approach would be to shuffle some of the subsidies to smaller farms, which would have the added bonus of boosting local economies.

Lawmakers missed an opportunity to do that in the latest Farm Bill. With the impact of that decision becoming more clear by the moment, they can’t afford to miss it again.

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