Insight Business

from INSIGHT BUSINESS published by USC's Center for Management Communication © copyright 2006 by USC Marshall School of Business. All Rights Reserved.

Corn-fed Calories and American Obesity

by Jessica Pakzad

ABSTRACT: This paper analyzes and supports the argument put forth by Michael Pollan, author of “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity.” It discusses the ramifications of the agricultural policies that foster an overproduction of corn in the U.S. This surplus of corn is linked to the increasing rates of obesity in the United States because it allows for food manufacturers to produce greater quantities of fattening food for lower costs and, in turn, lower prices for consumers. Opposing viewpoints are also discussed in the context of Pollan’s article. The information used in this paper came from a variety of articles, public statements, and statistical data regarding the relevant topics.

“Farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day; each of us is, heroically, managing to pack away about 200 of those extra calories per day.” - Michael Pollan, “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity”

In the past few decades, the rate of obesity in the United States has steadily increased. Although it may seem that our diet-centered society is simply more sensitive to news of increased weight gain, the truth is that obesity poses a certified threat to the health of the American public. More than just a threat to adults, juvenile and adolescent obesity has become a growing concern for the future of our country’s well being. In light of this epidemic, there has been ongoing speculation as to its cause. While most health professionals regard a lack of diet and exercise as the main proponent for obesity, others have looked for a more specific reason behind this troubling trend.

In his article, “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity,” Michael Pollan reflects on his contemporaries’ research and commentary as he discusses his proposition for why Americans are gaining weight: the overproduction of corn encouraged by government policies. Pollan goes on to state that it is the surplus of corn that leads to exceedingly cheap market prices. Food companies use this cheap corn to their advantage by offering larger portions of high-fat food and drinks, such as fast food French fries and sodas, to compete for revenues. Because Americans are being lured with ever-growing quantities of corn-fed calories, they have evolved into a nation of ever-expanding waistlines, in turn, creating the great American obesity epidemic. This paper argues for the points presented by Pollan’s reasoning that the cause of America’s obesity problem is rooted in the overproduction of corn.

In his article, Pollan points out the ironic role that the government plays in the transaction between farmers and the American public. On one hand the government actively campaigns to alert Americans about the dangers of obesity as well as the need to eat well and exercise. Through programs such as the Healthier US Initiative, the Council on Physical Fitness and Health, as well as programs run by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bush Administration has proven their committment to the fight against obesity. While the government’s efforts are commendable as well as necessary, Pollan wastes no time in his discussion of another government program: the subsidizing of the farming industry. Using Roosevelt’s New Deal agriculture policies as an ideal model, Pollan sheds light on both past and present government support systems for farmers: “New Deal farm policy, quite unlike our [current policy], set out to solve the problem of overproduction. It established a system of price supports, backed by grain reserve, that worked to keep surplus grain off the market, thereby breaking the vicious cycle in which farmers have to produce more every year to stay even.” Ironically, current government policy actually pays farmers for every bushel they grow, therefore encouraging them to produce a supply of corn that greatly outweighs the demand. “By guaranteeing U.S. farmers a minimum payment for commodities such as corn […] the government encourages overproduction. That drives down the market price, forcing even higher subsidies and creating surpluses” (Cassel). It is because of these surpluses that the trickle-down effect from overproduction to obesity begins.

Put in the context of the capitalistic society of the United States, the overproduction of corn means lower prices and lower costs for food manufacturers. Because corn has become so cheap, food manufacturers have developed processes that allow for them to use corn as a key ingredient for minimal costs. Besides using corn-fed animals for their meat products, fast food companies have found enormous value in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). High fructose corn syrup, made from cornstarch, was invented in the 1960’s by Japanese scientists and has since unlocked a way for food manufacturers to sweeten their products for a fraction of what they would pay for traditional sweeteners such as sucrose. It is with this in mind that Pollan points out that “when raw materials for food become so abundant and cheap, the clever strategy for a food company is not necessarily to lower prices – to do that would only lower its revenues. It makes much more sense to compete for the consumer’s dollar by increasing portion sizes.” However, statements put forth by the Corn Refiner’s Association (CRA), as well as leading fast-food chains, refute Pollan’s argument. While they both attribute the rise in obesity to poor diet choices and lack of physical activity, the CRA carefully defends high fructose corn syrup as being no better or worse than any other natural or artificial sweeteners.

In his argument that a surplus of cheap corn is a main proponent for obesity, Michael Pollan blames the food industry for using cheap ingredients, such as HFCS, to enable greater serving sizes. “Cheap corn, transformed into cheap beef, is what allowed McDonalds to supersize its burgers and still sell many of them for no more than a dollar” (Pollan). Greg Critser, author of Fatland: How Americans Became The Fattest People in the World, backs Pollan’s argument. In his book, Critser gives the following data: “A serving of McDonald’s French fries had ballooned from 200 calories (1960) to 320 calories (late 1970s) to 450 calories (mid-1990s) to 540 calories (late 1990s) to the present 610 calories. In fact, everything on the menu had exploded in size. What was once a 590 calorie McDonald’s meal [is] now . . . 1550 calories.” While Critser provides his readers with data regarding the popular French-fry instead of the hamburgers mentioned by Pollan, his commentary is a reflection on the trend in American society: “the bigger the portion, the more food people will eat” (Pollan).

Recent studies done on rising levels of soda consumption also support Pollan’s reasoning that cheap high fructose corn syrup could be behind the increasing rates of obesity. Figure 1 below provides readers with a striking connection between the amount of fructose consumed within the last four decades and the rise in obesity in that same duration (Bray, et al, “Consumption”). Since the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in the 1960’s, beverage companies have been the “big winners in the shift away from sugar […] because the syrup was a cheaper and easier-to-use alternative for liquid sugar at a time of soaring sugar prices, and the federally subsidized corn industry, which found a lucrative use for surplus corn” (King). Not only are soda manufacturers using fructose to sweeten 100% of their products, they are also using falling prices of corn (and in turn corn syrup) to offer super-sized servings to the American public.

These statistics and commentary are neatly aligned with Pollan’s argument that “cheap corn, transformed into high-fructose corn syrup, is what allowed Coca-Cola to move from the svelte 8-ounce bottle of soda ubiquitous in the 70’s to the chubby 20-ounce bottle of today.” With Bray’s research to support him, Pollan isn’t presumptuous in saying that soda bottles aren’t the only things getting chubbier from HFCS.

Although the Corn Refiners Association has challenged Pollan’s argument by saying that fructose is as much to blame for obesity as other sweeteners, further research still supports Pollan’s stance. In a statement released on March 24, 2004, the CRA quoted Dr. Bray, saying that “No single food ingredient, including high fructose corn syrup, is the culprit behind the nation’s obesity epidemic […] HFCS is virtually identical compositionally to table sugar […and] is a natural sweetener made from corn” (Bray “HFCS”). Interestingly enough, the CRA statement failed to mention “fructose bypasses the human metabolism’s normal energy burning responses and is more readily converted into fat […] Fructose gets into cells without triggering an insulin response and can form the backbone for fat molecules more readily” (“Finger”). While the CRA continues to claim that fructose has no less an effect than other sugars on weight gain, Bray et al’s findings on the connection between fructose consumption and obesity still hold strong in Pollan’s argument. Furthermore, whether or not fructose is in fact better or worse than sucrose poses no threat to Pollan’s reasoning since it does not address the amount manufacturers use and then sell to consumers. The public has yet to see the CRA raise prices of its products to prevent food chains from selling larger and larger portions.

While fast food chains, such as McDonald’s, say that Americans should be able to control their calories, recent menu and marketing changes have shown that perhaps they are finally recognizing Pollan’s point: people will eat anything and everything so long as it’s cheap. In response to a stream of lawsuits filed against McDonald’s claiming that they misinformed their customers as to the nutritional information of their menu, they said, “every responsible person understands what is in products such as hamburgers and fries, as well as the consequence to one's waistline, and potentially to one's health, of excessively eating those foods over a prolonged period of time” (qtd. in Wald). If this was in fact the case, and they weren’t threatened by loss of revenue from those making their own choices, then why has America seen a sudden push toward healthy alternatives on fast food menus? In commercials, magazine ads, and menu displays, McDonald’s, as well as its leading competitors, are calling attention to their new array of salads and grilled chicken sandwiches. Furthermore, recent new has shed light on the fact that fast-food chains are now “un-super-sizing” their menus. Fast-food’s change of menu choices indicate that they have succumb to the reality that their super-sized fries and burgers, made so cheaply because of the corn surplus, are, in fact, a leading cause for American obesity. They have strategically taken appropriate actions to reinforce their image and secure their revenues as Americans become more and more aware of the causes and consequences of obesity.

As our country is continuing to feel the effects of obesity, we as citizens not only have to take responsibility for our choices but also measure the environmental and economic factors that lead us to those choices. While re-thinking our choices as we pull up to fast food menus will help in the short-run, Americans must turn to the government to really facilitate a change in the way our food industry operates. As Pollan concluded, “the political challenge now is to rewrite those rules, to develop a new set of agricultural policies that don’t subsidize overproduction – and overeating.” Because our world is inevitably driven by the dollar, no changes in the amount of fructose used or food served will occur until corn prices reach equilibrium.

Works Cited

Bray, George A. “HFCS is not the cause of obesity.” Corn Refiners Association. 24 March 2004. 27 March 2004 <>.

Bray, George A., Samara Joy Nielsen, and Barry M. Popkin. “Consumption of high- fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 79. No. 4. April 2004: 537-43. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 29 March 2004 <>.

Cassel, Andrew. “Why U.S. Farm Subsidies Are Bad for the World.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 6 May 2002. Common Dreams News Center. 29 March 2004 <>.

Critser, Greg. Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

“Finger points to corn syrup in obesity epidemic.” International Congress on Obesity. 29 August 2002. 29 March 2004 <>.

King, Patricia. “Blaming it on corn syrup.” Los Angeles Times. 24 March 2003. 27 March 2004 <>.
Pollan, Michael. “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions Of Obesity.” New York Times. 12 October 2003. 28 March 2004 <>.

Wald, Jonathan. “Lawyers revise obesity lawsuit against McDonald’s.” 21 Feb. 2003. Cable News Network. 29 March 2004 <>.