By MATTHEW D. ERNST
NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — Indiana’s first Earth Fare store opened in Noblesville in November 2012. Headquartered in North Carolina and operating 28 stores in eight states, the health food chain touts that it sells no products with added high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Some might see expansion of this chain into the Eastern Corn Belt an indicator of changing food consumer priorities relative HFCS, but the latest USDA forecast for HFCS production in 2012-13 – predicting the lowest HFCS production level since 1995-96 – is not likely due to consumers souring on the sweetener.
Instead, lower HFCS production this year will result from the reality of less corn available for processing, said USDA economists. “What we’re seeing is a temporary response from processors to tight corn supplies and high corn prices,” said Tom Capehart, senior economist at the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “There’s so much competition for corn right now, and that competition (on the supply side) is what is affecting our HFCS forecast.”
Forecasted usage of field corn for HFCS in 2012-13 is 485 million bushels; this is a 5.5 percent decrease from the 513 million bushels used for HFCS reported in 2011-12. The decline would make this the second of the past 16 seasons with fewer than 500 million bushels, the lowest use of corn for HFCS since 1995-96.
Market experts doubt lower HFCS use is affecting today’s corn prices. “I don’t think HFCS is driving today’s prices,” said Capehart. “What’s driving the corn price, and lower HFCS production, is today’s scarcity of corn.”
HFCS consumption has declined in recent years, as higher corn prices may have made it less economically attractive than other sweeteners to food and beverage manufacturers.
According to the ERS, U.S. per capita consumption of HFCS peaked in 1999 at 37.4 pounds per year. Per capita use then fluctuated between 35-37 pounds until 2005, when HFCS consumption was reported at 34.8 pounds per capita.
“The decrease in the use of field corn (#2 yellow dent) for high fructose corn syrup reflects the decline in consumption of the sweetener,” said J. Patrick Mohan, interim president of the Corn Refiners Assoc.
“Over the last 10 years, per capita HFCS consumption in the U.S. has fallen by more than 25 percent, from 36.9 pounds in 2002 to 27.6 pounds in 2011. U.S. per capita consumption of table sugar has been moving in the opposite direction, increasing from 37.2 pounds to 39.1 pounds during that same period of time.”
Some of the consumption decrease is likely due to a negative perception of HFCS perpetuated by media and, perhaps, food retailers like Earth Fare.
“I get a lot of participants in our extension education events who have the indication that high fructose corn syrup is fat,” said Jenna Smith, University of Illinois extension educator, Nutrition and Wellness. “But the truth is, corn syrup is a sugar. Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup or other sugars, our body processes it the same.”
During the past three years, the reported decline in per capita HFCS consumption did not translate to a broader decline in per capita sweetener and sugar consumption. According to the USDA, Americans consumed 130.5 pounds of total caloric sweeteners per capita in 2009, 131.5 pounds in 2010, and 130.1 pounds in 2011.
During the same period, per capita use of corn sweeteners declined 3.7 pounds, according to the USDA. “People still seem to want sugar, so apparently companies are finding ways to deliver sugar in one form or another,” said Capehart.
Smith, a registered dietitian, said replacement does not translate to improved health. “If we are replacing corn syrup with other sugars, then we’re really not doing our bodies any good,” she added.
That view was shared by Leon Corzine, past president of the National Corn Growers Assoc. and a grower from Assumption, Ill. “I don’t think you can pick out one sweetener versus another,” he said, who noted diet is not the only contributor to obesity in America. “We also need to look at improving physical education and activity; they go along with what we are eating.”