The fatty repercussions of free trade

corn syrup factory
CC BY 2.0 Hannah Donovan

A thought-provoking study suggests that NAFTA's reducing the cost of high-fructose corn syrup has contributed to Canada's rising obesity problem.

Free trade agreements are controversial at the best of times, but now a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has thrown yet more fuel on the fire. Researchers suggest that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has contributed to rising obesity rates in Canada by boosting consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

The idea is that, when an ingredient becomes cheaper, thanks to tariff reductions, food manufacturers use more of it, regardless of its nutritional qualities. Their interests lie in profitmaking, after all, not ensuring the health of the population buying their products.

Canada had a 5 percent tariff on HFCS, but after adopting NAFTA in 1994, this tariff was waived. Meanwhile, protections were maintained on other sugar- and beet-based sweeteners such as maltose, glucose, fructose, and molasses. The Washington Post reports:

“As a result, researchers found, consumption stayed flat on those protected sweeteners, but spiked for high-fructose corn syrup. Countries that are economically similar to Canada but that did not join NAFTA — such as Australia and the U.K. — did not see a similar effect. At the same time, obesity rates increased from 13.4 percent in 1994 to 14.8 percent in 1998.”

While it is overly simplistic to blame obesity entirely on HFCS, and the researchers acknowledge that there other factors at play, this pattern has been seen in other places, too. The Washington Post article points out how soda consumption increased 37 percent in Mexico between 1998 and 1999 with the adoption of NAFTA; and sales of sports drinks exploded in Peru in the decade after its 2006 free trade agreement with the U.S. – something not seen in neighboring Bolivia, which hadn’t signed an agreement.

The researchers believe their study has value because it addresses a rarely examined side of free trade agreement – the health implications:

“We have shown that a small and potentially inconspicuous change to tariffs can precipitate a substantial change to peoples’ diets, including increased consumption of HFCS. The population-wide consequences for public health are potentially enormous.”

Obviously, dietary choices are personal, but many people cannot help but be influenced by product advertisement, placement, and cost, all of which are driven by free trade agreements. It’s an interesting study and one that policy-makers should pay attention to as the long-term effects of poor public health become more serious and financially burdensome, for both the Canadian government and individuals.

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