Corn and sugar met in federal district court in Los Angeles recently, with representatives of each industry arguing over whether renaming high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as "corn sugar" is false advertising. And the sugar industry seemed to get a boost, when leaked documents from the Food and Drug Administration revealed that the agency had warned the corn industry to stop using "corn sugar" to describe HFCS.

The FDA's warning is another front in the government's Battle of the Bulge. It is apparently concerned that consumers will pack on the pounds since they may believe "corn sugar" is healthier than HFCS. Similarly, the FDA is considering proposed regulations requiring owners of vending machines and restaurants to disclose calorie counts as weapons in our war on obesity.

Fighting obesity is a laudable goal given that roughly one-third of U.S. adults are obese and another quarter are overweight. But dictating the name of sugar is nothing more than regulatory overreach consistent with the wrongheaded belief that government always holds the power to cure what ails us.

And it is especially problematic when you consider that, in the case of HFCS, there is a major information gap between the governments' efforts and the evidence.

Research presented at this year's meeting of the American Society of Hypertension showed that consumption of normal levels of either sucrose or HFCS had no impact on weight or ability to lose weight. The research also showed no evidence of increased risk factors for chronic disease.

Additionally, recent studies by the American Medical Association suggest it appears unlikely that HFCS contributes more to obesity than table sugar.

The FDA also appears to have missed the fact that obesity and diabetes rates continue to rise, despite a decline in the consumption of sweeteners. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average daily caloric consumption of sweeteners, including HFCS, has actually decreased over the last decade. Consumption of HFCS increased steadily over two decades beginning in the 1970s, peaked around 1999, and has been declining ever since.

Common sense suggests factors other than sugar have stronger links to obesity, such as lack of exercise, genetics, and consumption of other high-calorie foods. There is little reason to think FDA's "corn sugar" objections would have much effect on obesity without addressing these other factors.

The FDA episode also provides an excellent example of how government intervention grows as it attempts to remedy the unintended consequences of its own policies. The U.S. government has fostered HFCS use through production quotas of domestic sugar, subsidies of U.S. corn, and import tariffs on foreign sugar.

Sucrose prices in the United States are now roughly twice those of the global market, causing food manufacturers to use cheaper substitutes like HFCS. American consumers bear about $1.9 billion in higher food costs as well, with 42 percent of wealth transfers flowing to just one percent of growers according to the Government Accountability Office.

It is worrisome that, despite President Obama's recent promise to stem the tide of red tape, the FDA's overreach opens the door for policymakers to continue piling regulation after regulation on the American people. The number of pages in the Federal Register (a frequently cited measure of government "red tape") has skyrocketed in recent decades, from 170,325 in the 1960s to 730,176 in the 2000s. The most recent estimate of the cost of this regulatory molasses to businesses, their employees, and their customers is $1.75 trillion per year.

Ultimately, substituting corn sugar for HFCS on nutrition labels is about marketing. Recall that the California Prune Board re-marketed prunes to dried plums in an effort to spur sales of a product long associated with its laxative properties.

It's doubtful many consumers were somehow fooled into believing dried plums were no longer prunes. The same consumers will not be fooled into believing corn sugar is somehow healthier than sucrose sugar. But as long as we mistakenly believe government can solve all our problems, regulatory overreach and bureaucratic name games will continue unabated.

Michael L. Marlow is a Professor of Economics at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and author of the new book "The Myth of Fair and Efficient Government: Why the Government You Get Is Not the One You Want."


source: ocregister

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