Sweet deal: High-fructose corn syrup price vs. consumption

Hansen's Natural Soda is replacing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) with cane sugar in all its soft drinks. Given that most soda advertisements these days seem to involve a daredevil doing something dramatic like riding a bike out of an airplane, a slogan that contains "to the max" or "extreme" (preferably in all caps), and some hype about an energy boosting nutrient, it's hard to see how Hansen's will be able to publicize this seemingly mundane change in the current style. (How about a skier going down an impossibly steep slope using sugar cane stalks as poles?) And it's likely that the vast majority of consumers won't even notice.

But many Hansen's customers will: Hansen's says that 30% of consumer calls it received were asking for a change from HFCS to a more natural sugar. "Consumers asked and we listened," is how one executive put it. This response is a refreshing change from the typical corporate doublespeak along the lines of "public pressure had nothing to do with our decision, it was planned long ago."

Of course, cane sugar production is not without its flaws — workers are mistreated, fertilizer overapplied, ecosystems damaged, and so on, as an episode of the Deconstructing Dinner radio program explains in detail.

However, Hansen's switch, along with record high corn prices, has me wondering if consumption rates of HFCS are changing, and if so, how fast. I found some of the answers in the USDA's Sugar and Sweeteners Data Tables, a massive collection of historical data on production, prices, trade, and consumption of all kinds of sweeteners.

The rise of HFCS

Until 1970, all sweetener calories were from white sugar and "other" sweeteners (honey, maple syrup, etc.) and U.S consumption was about 400 calories per day. HFCS boomed in the '70s and early '80s, paralleling the "cornification" of America through corn subsidy programs and government programs that raised the price of cane and beet sugar. As the figure below indicates, HFCS rose from a non-entity to something that eventually accounted for about 35% of sweetener calories in the U.S. In the early years, HFCS was a substitute for sugar: the decline of white sugar is almost mirrored by the rise of HFCS. But even after the HFCS for sugar switch was complete, consumption of HFCS kept rising, peaking in 1999 at 215 calories per day, then dropping slightly to about 200 calories per day. (Data sources are detailed at the bottom of the post.)

Calories from sweeteners 1970-2007

The biggest driver of HFCS's rise was the beverage industry, which nearly eliminated the use of sugar in its products in the early 1980s. I consulted several books about the history of Coca-Cola (including "For God, Country and Coca-Cola" and "Secret Formula") and it appears that the change from sugar to HFCS was not a big deal within the company. There was a little bit of resistance from someone who had been with Coke for almost 60 years, but in the end the management could not resist the enormous financial benefits of the switch. "Secret Formula" claims that the savings from replacing 50% of Coke's sugar with HFCS were $100 million per year in the early 1980s. In 2002, the soft-drink industry used 8 billion pounds of HFCS, but only about 200 million pounds of sugar (according to data from the USDA Sugar Backgrounder, a great reference on sugar production, use and policy).

Recent HFCS trends

I also extracted data showing recent trends of HFCS price and consumption, shown below in a chart. The blue line shows the relative price trend for HFCS-55 (,the formulation used in soft drinks; 55 refers to a 55% fructose concentration in the syrup), corrected to 2007 dollars (via the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator). The price rose steadily between 2000 and 2006, after which there was a 20% increase in price in two years.

The red line shows the trend in Americans' consumption. There is a slight decrease of a few percentage points per year. Between 2006 and 2007 — when there was a 12%  price increase — consumption dropped only 3.4%. Unfortunately, data for 2008 are not available, so we can't tell whether the latest price rise is having similar effects on consumption.


HFCS price and consumption

The most likely reason for the relatively small decrease in consumption is that HFCS makes up only a tiny portion of the retail cost of even the most HFCS-intensive product like soft drinks. The February 2008 issue of Amber Waves estimates that a 2-liter bottle of soda contains 15 ounces of corn in the form of HFCS. At the 2007 average price of $3.40 per bushel (about 56 pounds of shelled corn), the value of corn in the soda is only 5.7 cents. So a 20% rise in the price of corn results in a raw material cost increase of only about a penny, an increase that the giant soft drink companies or fast-food chains can certainly absorb for a little while.

Despite the price increases in the last few years, HFCS is still far cheaper than sugar in the U.S. Much of that price difference is caused by government programs (loans, import quotas, tariffs) that artificially inflate the price of sugar here. Indeed, USDA data indicate that the U.S. price is almost double the world price (tables 2, 3, 4 and 6 in the USDA Sugar and Sweeteners data tables). Some that that differential will decrease as Mexican sugar starts entering the market under the NAFTA provision reducing restrictions on Mexican sugar imports.

Many sources, including the documentary "King Corn," have pointed to HFCS consumption as a potential cause of America's rising obesity rates and accompanying diabetes epidemic. There is some evidence that HFCS is processed by the body differently than sweeteners that occur naturally (see, for example, some research from Saint Louis University).  Anyone who is hoping that rising corn prices alone will drive down the consumption of HFCS is likely to be disappointed. Until there are many more changes in the food system, high-fructose corn syrup is not going away.


Notes on data sources

All data are from the USDA Sugar and Sweeteners data tables.

  • First figure: total calories are from Table 51, white sugar calories are from Table 51, HFCS calories are from Table 52, and "Other" calories are from Table 53.
  • Second figure: HFCS prices are the spot prices for HFCS-55 from Table 9 (2008 prices are for January-April), HFCS consumption is from Table 52.

Photo credit: Sugar cane from iStockphoto

13 Responsesto “Sweet deal: High-fructose corn syrup price vs. consumption”

  1. Was it consumer "customers" or Whole Foods, perhaps their biggest customer? As far as I know, only two beverage producers are "grandfathered" in with HFCS at Whole Foods; Hansens and Newman's Own. Perhaps Newman's Lemonade will next be the one to drop HFCS?!? Nah!

  2. Katie says:

    Ummmmm, problem.

    Cane sugar SUCKS.

    For ecosystems where it's been plopped down, I mean.  (Of course its taste doesn't suck.)

    Nature, in all her weird and wonderful glory, has let animals evolve to the point of living in trees so much that they seriously don't know how to climb down, cross a road, and climb back up if there's a gap between trees.

    And sugar plantations need access roads.

    There are at least primates--maybe other animals, too--that're so evolved to treetops that their populations are cut into little cells like a soccer ball, and they're inbreeding themselves into extinctions.  All because of access roads.  (We're not even talking about forest-clearing yet!)

    http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/earth/habitats/rio-rain-forest.html

    Please consider this in future posts on the subject of cane sugar vs. other sweeteners (beet sugar products, HFCS, honey, etc.)

    This bit might make cane sugar--when produced on a "feed America" level--as bad for ecosystems as HFCS is.

    Thanks!  Rock on.

  3. I'm curious, if HFCS is a little more fructose than glucose, and cane sugar, sucrose, is split by our digestive systems into exactly half fructose and glucose, how is HFCS supposed to be "processed differently" when they are made up of the same ingredients? That doesn't follow at all, and the study you linked to did not claim that, either. It did, however, suggest that fructose might suppress the feeling of fullness. But again, you're getting a lot of fructose with cane sugar, too. is a 5% difference in fructose going to make much of a difference? (It is sobering to consider that several studies have found no difference between HFCS and sucrose's effects on fullness, and it doesn't sound like the study you linked to even studied that aspect.)
    When you consider that small difference in fructose content, and compare it to other sweeteners, the argument against HFCS gets worse. Honey, which my bees provide me when the flowers decide to pop open, has a ratio of fructose to glucose that is very similar to HFCS. Fructose itself is found abundantly in fruits, thus the name fruct-ose meaning fruit-sugar. Are apples making us fat?
    I'm a little worried about the anti-HFCS stuff that is en vogue right now, it seems too much like HFCS is the New White Sugar. Instead of paying attention to how much sugar they consume, now people just want the HFCS out. Ever looked at how much sugar a Nantucket Nectars has in it? It blows away any soda in existence - and proudly advertises itself as "HFCS Free." Not only that, because other sugar combinations are less sweet than HFCS, they have to include more calories to get the same flavor. How does Nantucket Nectars do it? White fruit juices - soon the Apples <em>will</em> be making us fat.
    The data you posted about total declining sweetener use is encouraging. And to echo the concerns of the above commenter, do you have any data comparing the environmental impact of Cane Sugar vs HFCS? To this date I know of none, but since you know something about where to find info on sugar I thought I'd ask.

  4. Bill says:

    The highest fructose I've seen in a fruit drink was in a nantucket nectars. 2 servings in one bottle with a whopping 33 grams of sugar per serving!! You should be called the "spoof guys". I'm sure they aren't drinking it. Just so you know not everyone, especially young kids or a mother when shes trying to rush and buy food for a family, has time to read a label. You put off like you are giving people something healthy but the amount of sugar is just ridiculous. Thanks SPOOF guys 

  5. The commenters above are absolutely right about cane sugar -- by no means is it a benign crop.  All methods of sweetener production (except perhaps for honey) have tremendous environmental impact.  Cane sugar plantations often are on land that was formerly highly biodiverse rainforest, workers treated terribly, lots of fuel is used to produce and transport that final product.  The Deconstructing Dinner program that I linked to above covers some of these topics.

    To allow large scale planting of beets or corn in the upper Midwest required destruction of various Native American peoples, plowing of the prairie, and conversion of other ecosystems to monocultures.  Fertilizer run-off from the corn and beet regions causes damage to streams, rivers and a portion of the Gulf of Mexico. And large scale agriculture of any form is not a good habitat for wild creatures. 

    Katie's point about roads and ecosystems is also a good one. Somewhere -- perhaps one of E.O. Wilson's books -- I saw something about how the mortality rate of birds was negatively affected by proximity to a road. Many of the primary predators of eggs and baby birds (crows, ravens, rats) prefer to do their hunting at the edges of forests, so the closer a nest is to the edge, the more danger its inhabitants face.

    Regarding inoculated mind's comment, I have not seen any direct comparisons of cane sugar and corn sweetener, and imagine that it would be an extremely complicated procedure. It could be a good topic for a master's degree thesis or even a Ph.D. dissertation.

    Continuing on inoculated mind's comment, Perhaps the "processed differently" line was a little off target -- the idea that HFCS is somehow different from other sweeteners is one of those ideas that drifts around the food world because now and then a study will pop up that supports the idea (e.g., a <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/07/050730093432.htm">multi-university study from 2005</a> that "consuming fructose appears to affect metabolic rate in a way that favors fat storage").  If there is a connection between HFCS and obesity, it is likely related to economic factors instead of chemical or metabolic difference.  HFCS's low price (about half of sugar in the U.S.) and liquid form (which makes it easier and cheaper to use in manufacturing plants, compared to sugar) have allowed supersized sodas and many other uses of HFCS while maintaining a low price for consumers.  As for the possibility that apples could make us fat, it seems unlikely that someone could eat enough apples or other fresh fruit to become obese -- there's all that chewing and fiber that gets in the way of calorie overload. But "natural" drinks with loads of sugar -- from cane or apple juice or white grape juice -- are possibly another matter.

  6. Thanks for your great response, Mark. I see we agree on several points.
     
    I'm curious, what do you think about the long-term consequences of the idea that HFCS should be avoided, specifically? As in, food writers that say "avoid HFCS" while saying nothing about the content of other sugars? Do you think this will help, harm, or keep our health about the same, generally?

  7. Inoculated Mind -- those are good questions. I expect that there will eventually be some backlash against cane/beet sugar as more HFCS is replaced in "natural" products. Already, nutrition experts like Marion Nestle argue that the big problem of quantity, not the form of the sugar. Another reason is that people are paying more attention to where their food comes from, and so knowledge about the negative impacts of sugar production will become more well known.

  8. Ken Close says:

    Good article. One comment on taste. I was in Cancun Mexico in 2002, and had a Coca-Cola that had been bottled there using sugar cane. It was so much better than the US domestic it brought tears to my eyes. I remembered the taste from the 40's & 50's when Coke was truly "the real thing." It still is, in Mexico.

  9. Ken -- a lot of people feel that sugar-based Coke tastes better, even though Coca-Cola insists that no one can tell the difference. Back in 2007 the S.F. Chronicle tried a blind taste test. Here are their findings:

    We convened an all-star Food and Wine staff panel to taste MexiCoke blind against U.S. Coca-Cola Classic. We bought glass bottles of both and sipped them out of wineglasses.

    All agreed that they taste very different, but we didn't settle on a favorite.

    Executive Food & Wine Editor Michael Bauer lined up with Jon for the U.S. Coke; he liked its "cleaner finish" and lower sweetness level. Food Editor Miriam Morgan was conmigo on MexiCoke, saying, "It has a fuller flavor." I also liked Mexican Coke's finer mousse of bubbles and straightforward sugar flavor.

  10. murt says:

    I still remember my epiphany moment when I went from product to product at the supermarket are realize the insidious ubiquity of Msr.  Fructose.  And thus I created this fear mongering shirt:

    http://tshirtinsurgency.com/high-fructose-corn-syrup-t-shirt

  11. Tony the Truth Seeker says:

    A 12 oz bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola sweetened with sugar contains 20.8 grams of fructose.  A 12 oz can of USA Coca-Cola sweetened with HFCS contains 21.4 grams of fructose...a difference of only 0.6 gram!

    It's not the fructose that is the problem...it's over-consumption.

    Gram for gram, HFCS is sweeter tasting than sucrose, so less grams are needed to provide the same sweetness as sucrose sweetened drinks.  HFCS Coke contains about 39 g of sugars/12 oz compared to about 42 g/12 oz for sucrose sweetened Coke and correspondingly contains about 10 less Calories.

    I always preferred the taste of soft drinks from glass bottles, which the major soft drink producers in the USA don't use anymore.  But now I only drink diet sodas.

  12. PhotoArtGuy says:

    Speaking of Mexican Coke, which is made with sugar -- even though the chemical difference may be minimal, the taste of Coke with sugar (as opposed to HFCS) is far superior, IMO.  Every time I'm near a Mexican  grocery store (the ones that import Coke from MX) or in Mexico, I stock up.  The difference in taste is well worth the trouble!

  13. Andrew Cook says:

    I have to concur with everyone discussing Soft Drink preference.
    The only sodas I enjoy anymore, ever, the only ones I'll buy and the only ones I like- are sugar ones.
    Hansen was a brand I almost bought at a local health food store- but didn't because of HFCS. Jones Cola made the switch to sugar- for a similar reason I believe.
    Even here in the South- our major Bottled Sweet Tea brand Milo's switched to "Natural" from a blend of Sugar and/or HFCS.
    Hell, I never liked Coke that much, but it was worth the trip to TEXAS just to get some Imperial Sugar sweetened Dublin Dr. Pepper. (I had also ordered a case and my D&D nerd/geek buddies agreed it was the best Dr. Pepper they'd had).
    I also agree with the problem of over consumption. If I was able to stock up on Sugar Only specialty sodas to my heart's content- I wouldn't be treating it as that something special, an occassional treat for my palate or in the case of Dr. Enuf- my craving (and at least it does have a healthy compliment of energizing vitamins).
    Again, glass bottles do taste better if you ask me (so does cheap beer?).
    The Fructose percentage is part of the problem too. If what I recall from Spurlock's "Super Size Me" and from around- HFCS even satiates cravings and appetite. Fructose at least is a mostly useless sugar- from a nutrtional stand point it FLOATS at the top of the Glycemic Index- it metabolizes faster than Glucose (which the brain needs basically runs on the stuff and only it) and you get less energy from it- at least as far as where it counts...since it just can't last.