Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cane sugar is a "throwback."

Today NPR had a piece on the new "throwback" Pepsi and Mountain Dew sodas. They're soft drinks made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. Supposedly they taste better — a little less sweet.

Cane sugar sodas have been a cult thing for some time. I think it was six or seven years ago the first time I heard someone say "I buy  imported Mexican Coke in glass bottles," Mexico being a place where they still make soft drinks with cane sugar. In fact, I'm pretty sure the entire world makes soft drinks with cane sugar. The U.S. did, too, up until the 1970's.

What happened then?

In the 1970s, as part of a new agricultural policy, the federal government placed tariffs on imported sugar and subsidies on corn. Since most of our cane sugar was imported, it promptly got very expsnive. Corn, now subsidized, got cheap. Corn can be turned into sugar, but it's usually a lot more expensive than just buying cane sugar. That's why the rest of the world uses cane. But when corn syrup became cheaper in the U.S., soda makers — along with lots of other food manufacturers — switched. (While we use cane sugar in most of our foods, you'll often find others baking with corn syrup because it's cheaper.)

That simple market distortion — a tariff here, a subsidy there — has created a lot of strange effects. We now grow corn across the Midwest, much of it for sugar production. Compared to cane sugar, manufacturing sugar from corn creates a lot more pollution and uses more oil. Meanwhile, the countries that grow cane sugar — primarily poor economies in Central America and Africa — can't sell us what they make. Their sugar would travel further, but it would be made with far less pollution. It would also taste better. (This is a good example of how going "local" can get very complex very quickly.)

If you're interested in the strange tale of corn in America I highly recommend Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary it inspired, King Corn.

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