Study Finds Tenuous Link between Farm Subsidies and Intake of Sweets

Helen Jensen;
John Beghin;
Sandy Clarke;

October 29, 2008

In recent years, several health and food groups have made claims that farm subsidies that support agricultural commodity production are directly implicated in the growing obesity problem in the United States and the increased consumption of sweetened foods and drinks. A new analysis finds otherwise.

Two Iowa State University economists, working along with University of California-Davis researchers on the project, have found that the current link between these subsidies and intake of sweeteners is tenuous at best, although a stronger link could be found in earlier years. Eliminating corn subsidies would do little to decrease the consumption of sweeteners in foods and its extra calories, according to the analysis by Professors John Beghin and Helen Jensen.

Beginning in the 1970s, companies began substituting cheaper high-fructose corn syrup for the more expensive sugars made from cane and beet sugar, and farm subsidies did make the substitute much more competitive. Critics have charged that the cheap corn-based sweetener used in many snack foods and beverages has contributed to high and rising U.S. rates of obesity and diabetes.

The Beghin and Jensen study found that countries with no comparable commodity programs had increasing rates of sweetener consumption similar to those in the United States. Also, the farm share of the value of sweetened food items is so small, at roughly 5 percent or less, that the effect of sweetener ingredient prices has become much less important over time.

The paper describing the study and its findings is "Farm Policies and Added Sugars in US Diets".