How Big Sugar Got Rich Off American Cravings
James Walvin on the Unholy Trinity of Soft Drinks, Corn Syrup, and Capitalism
Though millions of people around the world have turned to American soft drinks since the Second World War, the most dramatic success of those drinks is to be found where they first began—in the USA. There, for more than a century, the soft-drinks business had been built around a plentiful supply of cheap sugar. Sugar had been the central ingredient in the popularity of fizzy drinks but, by the late 20th century, it was clear that people’s consumption of ever more fizzy drinks, in league with changing food and eating habits, was having a disastrous effect on their physical well-being. In the USA, sweetened soft drinks had been transformed from an infrequent treat to a persistent daily habit. In the 1950s, the annual per capita consumption of highly calorific soft drinks had been 11 gallons; 50 years later, that had risen to an astonishing 36 gallons. In the process, Americans were consuming 35 pounds of sweeteners each year from soft drinks alone.
Sugar has become a major problem. Throughout much of the 20th century, sugar had been a matter of political and economic dispute in the USA and, in 1974, the old sugar quota system, designed to protect US sugar interests and control sugar prices, was ended by Congress. The drinks and confectionary lobby hoped this would give them access to still cheaper sugar, but the opposite happened. At first, sugar prices increased dramatically, then fluctuated up and down wildly. By the late 1970s, the US sugar industry was keen on a return to the stability provided by federal protection. For their part, the soft-drinks companies were tired of their reliance on volatile world sugar prices and supplies, and began to look for alternative sweeteners. The answer was close to hand.
The search for artificial sweeteners had begun in the late 19th century, driven by pharmacists experimenting in their labs. Saccharin, for instance, had been discovered in 1879, and was sold commercially after 1914, having thrived in the years of wartime sugar shortages. Another major sweetener—cyclamate—emerged after 1945, and various combinations of these products appealed to the soft-drinks companies, especially from the 1950s onwards, in their early efforts to produce a reduced-calorie version of their main products. However, health concerns about artificial sweeteners in the 1960s and 70s—and an increased scrutiny by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into such products—lent a new urgency to the search for safe, new sweeteners. The solution seemed to be NutraSweet (aspartame). The makers of NutraSweet realized that the product’s future was linked to the soft-drinks market. Profits boomed and the makers became part of the massive Monsanto conglomerate.
By the end of the 20th century, with a rising crescendo of concern about artificial sweeteners and health, and about the impact of sugar on global obesity, the corporate and legal in-fighting about artificial sweeteners became fierce—not surprisingly, perhaps, given the value of the global market for sweeteners. The annual sales for the market-leader—aspartame—stood at $3 billion; the next 12 leading products brought the total value to $3.5 billion.
Like the US sugar industry, US corn was highly protected, regulated and subsidized, with the origins of federal intervention lying in the Depression era of the 1930s. Farmers in the American Midwest produced more and more corn, partly by using new, scientifically developed strains, and partly by innovative, highly mechanized farming systems and equipment. The end result, by the late 20th century, was that US granaries were full to overflowing. The nation’s farmers had produced much more corn than the US could possibly consume.
Extracting a sweetener from corn had long been familiar to agricultural scientists and, even by the late 19th century, a number of corn-based sweeteners were available on the US market, and a number of companies specialized in corn syrup. But the taste was never quite right. Then, in 1957, scientists hit upon a process for making high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). At first, it was more expensive than sugar, but all that changed thanks to US legislation. The 1973 Farm Bill devised a payment for farmers allowing them to grow as much corn as they wanted, while guaranteeing them a profit via federal subsidies. HFCS then became cheap, and a new process made it even sweeter than cane sugar. First the USA, and then the global demand for market sweeteners was utterly transformed.
“Billions of tax dollars ($5.7 billion in 1983 alone) went to subsidize corn production, so American obesity was itself subsidized by American taxes.”
Coca-Cola, ever cautious about tinkering with its major product, experimented with corn sweeteners in some of its lower-profile drinks. They discovered that customers did not complain and, in 1980, the company switched from cane sugar to HFCS. In 1985, corn syrup became the sweetener for all the company’s major drinks in the USA. As usual, the country’s wider confectionary industry followed their lead, and corn syrup quickly became the dominant sweetener in the USA. By the mid-1980s, most manufacturers of soft drinks had switched completely to HFCS, and it is only recently that researchers have exposed its possible dangers to health. That sweetener soon infiltrated the wider confectionary and food market, and was being used in a wide range of products, from ketchups to cookies, from cakes to candies. The impact was astonishing.
Best of all, from the companies’ viewpoint, the new sweetener dramatically slashed production costs for soft drinks. The Coca-Cola Company also implemented a critical marketing change that was to have equally far-reaching results—they increased the size of their bottles and cans. While the cost of producing their drinks had fallen substantially, the company charged only a few cents more for a much larger volume of drink. Because corn syrup was cheap, “it paid to go big.” The sizes of servings of soft drinks rose: first to 12 fluid ounces, then 20 fluid ounce containers, and even to 64 fluid ounce “buckets.” All this went hand in hand with Coke’s great ally McDonald’s, which had 14,000 outlets in the 1990s, and their own invention of “supersizing” of their own food products.
In the 1950s, McDonald’s served only one size portion of French fries. In 1972, they offered “large size” and, in 1994, “supersized fries.” They even promoted their products with the phrase “Supersize It!” and the pattern was adopted by rival fast-food chains.
In the 1980s, the companies launched their supersized products (20 fluid ounce bottles with 15 teaspoons of sweetener; one liter bottles with 26 teaspoons; and even a 64 fluid ounce version with a massive 44 teaspoons). As these servings got bigger, children were drinking more and more. By 1995, two out of three American children were drinking a national average of 20 fluid ounce every day. And at its height, a large serving of Coke contained 310 calories.
The end result—in addition to rising profits—was a massive increase in per capita consumption of soft drinks from 28.7 gallons in 1985 to 36.9 gallons in 1998. HFCS now represents 50 percent of all sweeteners consumed in the USA. It had also become the focus on its own increased medical and scientific scrutiny, with concerns raised about its impact on a range of health issues.
What lies behind these statistics about diet and drink was little less than a human revolution. Americans had begun to consume many, many more calories than they needed. In 1950, the per capita consumption of calorific sweeteners was just over 100 pounds. Thirty years later, it was over 125 pounds; by 2000, that had reached 153 pounds. Bizarre as it seems, the link between this and American agriculture was inescapable—America’s farmers were being subsidized to fuel “an unhealthy trend towards overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich sweeteners.”
What made this trend all the more potent and far-reaching were the major social changes taking place in the nature of US society itself, especially in employment and residential locations. Americans had become a nation of city-dwellers, and much of America’s employment was non-manual and sedentary, with 80 percent of America’s city workers employed in service industries. An increasing proportion of the labor force worked in less labor-intensive occupations which required fewer calories than earlier generations. One simple example is the daily commute—fewer people walked to work. In the last 40 years of the 20th century, the number of Americans driving to work increased from 40 million to 110 million and the average return journey took 50 minutes. In 2003, less than 20 percent of Americans had some form of daily exercise. As the people of the USA became more sedentary, their food became cheaper and they were consuming ever more calories.
The irony behind all this was that the process was highly subsidized. Soft and fizzy drinks were cheap and very sweet—courtesy of the American taxpayer. Billions of tax dollars ($5.7 billion in 1983 alone) went to subsidize corn production, so American obesity was itself subsidized by American taxes. In 1971–74, only 14 percent of Americans were obese. By the mid-1990s, that had risen to 22.4 percent and, by 2008, more than one third of the US population was obese. The formula seemed simple: “Americans were turning excess sugar into fat.”
American obesity was clearly linked to the consumption of highly sweetened soft drinks. This pattern was, of course, spread unevenly throughout the population. Minority communities—especially the poor—were disproportionately obese. A cheap hamburger and a fizzy drink was often the only affordable way of eating in many communities where incomes were low, welfare high and modestly priced food outlets distant or inaccessible. Nor was this a uniquely American pattern. The dietary revolution taking place in the USA was to be seen in all corners of the globe, and the impact on global health was massive. Millions of people all over the world were consuming increasing volumes of mass-produced, processed drinks and food—all saturated with excessive amounts of sweeteners—and many millions of them were getting fatter. Sugar, once a luxury, then a necessity, had now become the enemy.
Coca-Cola’s remorseless promotion of its product, especially among the poor at home and in less developed nations, finally even alienated one of its senior executives. Jeffrey Dunn, once President for North and South America, spoke openly about the doubts he—and many others—now had about the impact of carbonated drinks (and industrialized foods) on health. The company was directing massive efforts towards selling more and more drinks to those who could ill afford them in the USA and around the world, who had barely enough resources to procure the basic nutritional needs for a normal life. So powerful had their advertising become that they could persuade the less well off, at home and abroad, to buy Coke at the expense of more vital commodities. The poor were staying poor—yet they were also getting fatter. It was a remarkable historical upheaval. For centuries, it had been the rich who tended to be overweight; the indulgent wealthy had been portrayed as obese. Now, the reality had been turned on its head; the poor were becoming the fattest people on earth. Jeffrey Dunn had no doubts about the correlation between rising obesity and the per capita consumption of sugary soft drinks.
The importance of sweetness had been confirmed even in the fierce rivalry between the two soda giants—Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola—in the 1980s. They fought each other to a stand-still, one sometimes overtaking the other, one claiming to be sweeter or more delicious than the other—but both were carried along by a rising tide of consumption. Despite the rivalries, both companies thrived and sold more and more drinks to their fans. It didn’t seem to matter what they said about each other—both sides thrived. And both thrived on selling their sweetened drinks.
“The evidence of the success of the food corporations was to measured, however, not merely in the financial returns of the companies involved, but in the expanding waistline of the American people.”
When the Coca-Cola Company switched from more expensive refined sugar to the cheaper, high-fructose corn syrup in 1980, their profits rose even higher. So, too, did the marketing budget. By 1984, it reached $181 million. The drive by Coca-Cola was to persuade people to buy ever more Coke, and it worked. By 1997, Americans were drinking 54 gallons of carbonated drinks a year—Coke controlled 45 percent of the overall market—and sales rose to $18 billion. But because Diet Cokes accounted for only 25 percent of the sales, people were overwhelmingly drinking sugary drinks—more than 40 gallons a year, or 60,000 calories, equivalent to 3,700 teaspoons of sugar per person.
The consumption of Coca-Cola seemed a perfect confirmation of the “Pareto Principle”—the theory that 80 percent of consequences stem from 20 percent of the causes. In this case, 80 percent of Coke’s consumption was accounted for by 20 percent of the population. More alarming still, however, that 20 percent was located at the lower end of the social scale, among the poor and dispossessed who could ill afford to spend rare resources on a drink that added little nutritional value to their diet. Yet the company’s marketing policy was to persuade those very people to drink more.
The other market targeted by the companies was the young—the people who would become lifelong Coke drinkers. Although the company developed a policy about not advertising to under-twelves, there were many ways of stimulating an interest in a drink without direct TV appeals. The name, logo and images of Coca-Cola were ubiquitous in the very places where children spent much of their formative leisure time. That and, via careful research and marketing, locating branded drinks dispensers and outlets where the young were likely to shop. The drink was to be placed at the most strategic positions, in corner shops and supermarkets, to persuade people to buy impulsively.
Behind this lay a forensic analysis of shopping habits, market and social research into the shopping and consumer habits of the US population, by every conceivable category—rural and urban, socio-economic class, age, gender and ethnicity, and so on. They were thus able to reach their target groups not merely in the nation’s major supermarkets but, critically, in local convenience stores. There, too, drinks were located precisely to catch the eye and the cash of customers—children, say, at nearby schools. The corner shops of the late-20th-century USA therefore became lucrative enterprises, their profits flowing primarily from the sweetened drinks and snacks loved by their young customers. The results led to a proliferation of corner stores—and an ever-rising flow of soft drinks and snacks out of their doors in the hands of ever-younger customers.
It was here, in the convenience stores, that drinks companies were developing a powerful loyalty for their brands among the nation’s young—get them young, and you had them for life. It was a rival and confirmation of the principle first advocated by Robert Woodrufff decades earlier. For critics, as if all this were not bad enough, all the major manufacturers of soft drinks and snacks were making powerful incursions into much poorer countries, nations that were, in some cases, developing rapidly, but nonetheless had swathes of their people suffering serious deprivation. To reach those people, the major international companies began to produce small versions of their drinks and food, offering drinks and snacks that were significantly cheaper because they were sold in smaller sizes.
Sugar, then, has been at the very heart of the long history of American soft drinks. In the post-war years, it had sweetened the powdered fruit drinks which Americans had mixed with water and served to their families. At their peak, those powdered drinks brought in $800 million. Towards the end of the 20th century, fruit flavors were added and children were targeted via leafleting and junk mail. When the same drinks were repackaged and sold in small cartons, the drinks became hugely popular, all supported by images of health and nutrition and, above all, they were fun. But food scientists were also at work, devising new fruit flavors, and finding sweeteners. The answer was pure fructose, which was much sweeter than sugar itself. Once the imperfections had been eliminated, food manufacturers could turn to fructose in their products and claim it was good for you. This happened when sugar was under serious attack as the source of worrying health issues, and played into the food industry’s hands. Pure fructose seemed to be the answer to the growing band of critics of sugar. It was to take another decade or more before further research began to suggest that sucrose and corn syrup were also likely to encourage health problems, notable heart disease. Today, with the scientific jury still pondering the issue, fructose is seen by many critics to be as dangerous as cane sugar itself.
Other sources of sweetness were, however, also available to the food manufacturers. “Fruit juice concentrate” emerged by the beginning of the 20th century as another powerful weapon in the ongoing battle to find sweeteners that were commercially viable and safe. Here, once again, science and advertising concocted another alchemist’s dream—until tested in the courts. We now had another sweet additive that, in many cases, had been stripped entirely of its nutritional value.
Sweetness was the essential hook used to target and catch American children. There seemed little that the major corporations would not do to secure a child’s loyalty to the sweet products pouring from American factories and into the aisles of supermarkets and corner shops, and ultimately into the hands of the young. The evidence of the success of the food corporations was to measured, however, not merely in the financial returns of the companies involved, but in the expanding waistline of the American people. As the food corporations grew fat on their sweet products, their customers simply grew fat. And so, too, did millions of consumers the world over. What the USA had pioneered, they exported—sweet-tasting soft drinks and unprecedented levels of obesity.
What could be done about it? One stock reply, a mantra of defenders of the food industry, was that individuals had a choice—no one was forced to buy sweetened food and drink. Consumers could resist the blandishments of the modern diet, and look to their own physical well-being. Millions took this route of self-control and, over time, there emerged another rival industry—that of personal fitness, diets, gyms, food fads and bogus claims—much of it in pursuit not merely of a healthy body, but of an idealized body. For all that, it was obvious that more, much more, was needed to turn the tide of global obesity.
From Sugar: The World Corrupted—From Slavery to Obesity. Used with permission of Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2018 by James Walvin.