America losing taste for corn syrup

Heightened awareness of obesity leads people seek out beverages, food that don't contain sweetener

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WASHINGTON -- Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten products from Coca-Cola to HJ Heinz ketchup and linked to obesity, is falling in the United States as health-conscious consumers drink less soda.

The amount of corn devoted to the sweetener this year will fall to its lowest level since 1997, according to a Jan. 15 projection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"A lot of attention has been paid to obesity, and that's hurt high-fructose corn syrup," said Marion Nestle, a public-health and nutrition expert at New York University. "Now, if only people weren't making up for it by eating more sugar."

For decades, corn syrup benefited from the relatively low cost of corn compared with sugar. A tripling of corn costs since 2004 has lessened that advantage, while consumer obesity concerns and negative publicity have also eaten into demand, said Lauren Bandy, an ingredients analyst with Euromonitor International in London.

Americans consumed an average of 131 calories of the corn sweetener each day in 2011, down 16 percent since 2007, according to the most recent USDA data. Meanwhile, consumption of sugar, also blamed for weight gain, rose 8.8 percent to 185 calories daily, the data show.

Even with the increase in sugar use, total U.S. sweetener production remains down 14 percent from a 1999 peak, according to the USDA.

"We're seeing a real decline, and that people aren't just switching to sugar," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "People consume way too much of both."

He attributes the decline to public-health campaigns.

Concerns that obesity is rising have spurred anti-sweetener measures, including proposals in 30 states to levy soda taxes on the $74 billion U.S. soft-drink industry. Last September, New York City's Board of Health voted to restrict sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces a cup in restaurants, movie theaters and stadiums, acting on a proposal by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Soft drinks are the major driver of high-fructose corn syrup use. Consumption, which peaked in 1998 at 54 gallons a person, plummeted 21 percent by 2011, as Americans drank more juice, tea and bottled water, according to Beverage Digest.

High-fructose corn syrup was developed in the 1950s and, for about a decade starting in the mid-1990s, rivaled refined sugar as the top U.S. sweetener.

The liquid sweetener is often used in cereals, yogurts, soups and other foods because it is easier to blend, transport and preserve than sugar. About 4.5 percent of the U.S. corn crop, or 485 million bushels, will be used to make the sweetener in the year ending Aug. 31, according to the USDA.

Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill together run more than half of the country's plants where high-fructose corn- syrup is refined from corn.

Growth in exports have more than made up for any decline in domestic sales, said Jackie Anderson, an ADM spokeswoman, in an email. "Our corn mills are designed to be flexible so that we can move production to different products," she said.

Corn-based ethanol, which until 2000 used less of the grain than the sweetener, will account for 4.5 billion bushels this year, almost 10 times as much, USDA data show.

Ties to obesity are scaring some consumers away even as trade groups for corn syrup and sugar battle each other in court over allegedly false statements about one another's products, Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, said.

"It's laughable, seeing them fighting one another when they're both awful," Nestle said.