Keith Wilcox, a California parent who home-schools his children, wants them to eat healthy foods. And he wants the food to be safe. But lately Wilcox has become concerned and confused by what he’s been reading about the food he buys.

Specifically, Wilcox and a lot of other Americans have become concerned about high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener that is made from corn. HFCS is made by an enzymatic process that converts corn’s glucose to fructose and then is mixed with pure corn syrup (100 percent glucose) to produce a desired sweetness. HFCS is used as a sugar substitute in many processed foods and beverages, including your favorite soda. The primary reason HFCS is so popular among food companies is because the product is cheap — as much as 40 percent cheaper than sugar.

In recent years, however, critics have begun to target HFCS as one of the reasons Americans are obese. Some of those critics allege that HFCS is in itself more detrimental to health than table sugar, while others claim that the low cost of HFCS encourages over consumption of sugars.

Like many issues about food these days, both sides of the HFCS argument have research that supports their position. For instance, last December the National Corn Growers Association issued a news release that said a “respected peer-reviewed medical journal disproves many current myths about high-fructose corn syrup.” But one of the emotional arguments against HFCS is that it is a product of Big Corn — which critics believe is a repulsive collection of the companies that buy corn from farmers and turn it into food. For a profit, of course.

Naturally, the NCGA and other farm groups are in a public relations battle over HFCS with activist groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has also supported:

  • Extra taxes on foods with fat, sugar and sodium (the so-called “Twinkie tax”)
  • Government-mandated “warning” labels on high-fat, high-calorie menu items
  • Mandatory nutrition information on restaurant menus, menu-boards, meat packages, hamburger wrappers, food commercials, ice cream stores, movie theatres, bakeries, hot dog stands, etc., etc.

But recently CSPI and a host of other “food police” wannabes have concluded that the way to lower obesity rates in the United States is by taxing sodas and other sugary drinks — the ones with the HFCS. Supporters of this plan say it can do two things: lower consumption of HFCS and raise revenue that could be used to pay for things such as healthcare reform.

You don’t have to be an economist to understand that when you raise the price of anything there will be a corresponding decrease in demand. Whether or not a decrease in demand for HFCS-laden sodas would help lower obesity rates is debatable. And whether or not the revenue from such a tax should be used to pay for healthcare reform or any other program is also debatable.

What is not debatable is the fact that our federal government decided decades ago that we should encourage the production of cheap food, and therefore, our government subsidizes corn production — and several other crops. The original farm bill was passed in 1949, and the latest revision was in 2008. Also not debatable is the fact that the farm bill, which is a collection of laws, policies and legislation related to agriculture production, food distribution and hunger, is often a political hot potato. Into this controversial arena we now have activists who are pushing for a soda tax, and they have apparently gained the attention of at least some politicians.  

One proposal calls for a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on soda, which would add $1.44 to the cost of each 12-pack carton of canned sodas. That proposal was advanced last month by a group of policymakers, doctors and other advocates in a New England Journal of Medicine paper. They estimate the tax would raise $15 billion in its first year, and they hope it would encourage Americans to change their dietary habits.

The proposal, naturally, met with a lot of immediate criticism from a lot of folks who just oppose any new tax. But what some overlooked is the irony of such a soda tax. On one hand our federal government is subsidizing farmers to grow corn so that we may provide affordable food to our citizens. On the other hand — if a soda tax were enacted — our government would also be imposing a demand-limiting tax on the products of the corn they are encouraging farmers to produce!

Unfortunately, many Americans have grown accustomed to such thinking from their government. Indeed, a Will Rogers’ (1879–1935) quote from nearly 80 years ago seems just as appropriate today: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”