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High Fructose Corn Syrup and Sugar Tariffs

One of the assignments in our government librarianship class is to write a term paper this semester. For me, this is a fantastic opportunity to finally figure out just what is happening in the world of corn growers’ lobbying, just how the Corn Refiners Association gained such a loud voice, and what defines the history of corn – the legislative history, that is.

As the hue and cry over the use and nutrition concerns of high fructose corn syrup led the Corn Refiners Association to apply to the FDA for a change in name to "corn sugar," the negative public opinion has pushed some food companies to switch formulas to include cane sugar or fruit juice sweeteners. But will that really impact the corn lobby or the government corn subsidies? Will the government lower the foreign sugar tariff? Political implications aside, just how the corn industry became such a power player will be a fascinating world to research.

My interest in such a topic stems from two things. First, when I was growing up during the 1980s, Coke changed their formula and the new version never tasted the same – and it was a marked difference to me. To this day, I have nostalgia for the original formula (which contained sugar). Second, I thoroughly enjoyed Twinkie, Deconstructed, a book about the common ingredients in food, and how these ingredients are grown, processed, and sometimes mined into becoming our food.  The lengths to which high fructose corn syrup has been processed, and then utilized in the high number of food industry sectors, is alarming. Perhaps it is psychological, but I believe that the foods which contain sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup just taste better, and when I travel to Europe, where HFCS is not available, I enjoy my sugar-laden Coke.

My research is about to begin this week. I will visit different depository libraries in New York City and while poring through the Congressional Records, CRS reports, and other government documents. I will read the Corn Refiners Association webpages, and I anticipate looking at the FDA and DHHS sites well.  I am curious just how corn has shaped our history, and how that is reflected in our government documents.

And yet…what is connection to the sugar import tariffs? According to a 2005 open letter from the Consumer Federation of America, the sugar import tariffs create an artificial demand. Naturally, the American Sugar Alliance disagrees. But have sugar import tariffs contributed to the search for alternative sweeteners? In preliminary research, it appears that the protection of the domestic sugar market artificially creates demand, such that the cost has increased dramatically. From what I understand, some confectioners, such as Brach’s, have moved their operations to Canada. If that is the case, then can it be argued that the sugar squeeze has essentially created a market for a product such as high fructose corn syrup? If so then maybe the Corn Refiners Association should bill the American Sugar Alliance for the cost of lobbying the FDA for a change in name for HFCS to “corn sugar.”

So my research begins…and regardless of what my research reveals through the journey from 1789 sugar tariffs to 2010 corn lobbies, I can write with confidence, that it would been wonderful to have been a fly on the wall for these historical Congressional hearings, with a cane sugar-infused Coke in one hand and HFCS-free cornbread in the other.

Johanna Blakely-Bourgeois, Pratt SILS