Corn syrup myths

There are a lot of myths out there about high fructose corn syrup. While there are plenty of reasons to avoid consuming too much corn syrup (and all sugars), that’s no reason to spread rumors.

Have any commonly held beliefs about corn that you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments.

Myth: Huge amounts of the sizable US corn crop go to HFCS production. Here’s an example that sums up this idea from Grist: “The Big Corn People began to grow so much royally-subsidized GMO corn that they turned it into millions of gallons of high fructose corn syrup.”

It’s true, a portion of the US corn crop is used for HFCS production. It’s also true that corn syrup is cheap because the corn industry receives subsidies. But there’s a lot more to this story.

How is corn used?

Most of the US corn crop is used for animal feed. In 2006-2007, 5.6 billion bushels of corn were used for animal feed, 2.1 billion for exports, 2.1 billion for ethanol, 753 million for corn sweeteners, 272 million for corn starch, 190 million for corn foods (tortillas, cereal, etc), and 137 for alcoholic beverages, according to Iowa State University’s High Fructose Corn Syrup – How sweet it is (pdf).

It’s more than a little dishonest to blame the monocultures on HFCS, when so much of the crop is used for feed. Again, that’s 5.6 billion bushels of corn for animal feed versus 753 million bushels for sweeteners in 2007. We might also take a second look at ethanol.

Corn is used for so many things because it can be separated into fractions fairly easily. According to that same ISU Factsheet, a single bushel of corn (about 60 lbs) produces three primary products after wet milling:

  • 1.6 lbs corn oil
  • 13.5 lbs corn protein gluten animal feed
  • 2.6 lbs corn gluten meal used for poultry feed, pre-emergent herbicide, and fur cleaner.

The remaining starch can then be used to produce one of three alternatives:

  • 33 pounds of corn sweetener
  • 32 pounds of cornstarch
  • 2.5 to 2.7 gallons of ethanol or beverage alcohol

In other words, a bushel of corn can be used to make animal feed and either corn syrup or ethanol – not both. Over the years, the percentage of the crop that’s gone for sweetener or ethanol has changed a great deal. According to Table 27  – US use of field corn, by crop year (.xls), in 1991 7% of the corn crop was used to make sweetener, and 6.10% was used to make alcohol. In 2009, 5.78% of the corn crop was used for sweetener, while 35.82% was used for ethanol. Over the same years, the amount of corn harvested increased, so total corn syrup production did increase, but not much compared to ethanol.

If you’re looking to blame something for corn monocultures, it makes sense to turn first to animal products and then to ethanol… not to corn syrup.

How much does it cost?

Corn syrup is cheaper than sugar because of the climate in the US, tariffs on imported sugar, and because of corn subsidies. Sugar can be refined from two crops: sugar cane and sugar beets. Sugar cane is a tropical crop, and there aren’t many places in the US where it can be grown (see this map of US sugar cane acres in 2007 from the USDA to see just how few places). Sugar beets aren’t grown in many places in the US either (see this map of US sugar beet acres in 2007). Sugar cane and sugar beets both produce about 50% of US sugar, according to University of Florida Extension’s Overview of Florida Sugarcane.

Since there isn’t much sugar produced in the US, and due to the climate in the US we couldn’t produce much more even if we wanted to, we would need to import it from Brazil, India, or Europe. That could be a problem for locavores looking for sugar, but it’s definitely a problem for US sugar producers who want to stay competitive with producers overseas. Sugar producers have been successful in lobbying for high tariffs, so we don’t import much sugar. I don’t understand all the tariffs and other programs, but you can learn more at the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s US Sugar Import Program.

Since we can’t and don’t produce much sugar in the US, and there are trade barriers to importing sugars, it makes sense for food producers to look for an alternative sweetener. We have excellent climate and soils for corn (see this map of US corn acres in 2007), and it’s not that difficult to make sugar from corn starch.

More questions

I have to wonder if, in the absence of trade barriers, we would still have more corn syrup than corn sugar. Similarly, how much would the balance of sweeteners actually change if corn subsidies were removed? Since such a small amount of the crop is used to produce all the sweetener we need, I wonder if things would change much at all. Finally, even if we had enough sugar to meet consumer demand for sweet processed foods, would Americans actually consume any less total sugar than we do now? I think it wouldn’t change at all. As for what might change consumption of total sugars, we might consider subsidies on healthy (or at least healthier) foods and/or a tax on unhealthy foods and sodas. Here’s hoping.