High Fructose Corn Syrup and the Sugar Quota

A viral tik-tok video compares the ingredients in American Heinz ketchup with those in Canadian Heinz ketchup. The American version contains high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) while the Canadian one contains sugar. An an economist I can’t tell you whether, “this is why America makes you sick” but I can tell you why the American version doesn’t contain sugar. It’s the sugar quota!

The American sugar quota taxes any imports above a small amount at a very high rate. As a result, the US price of sugar is typically about twice the world price of sugar. The higher price of sugar means that US consumers spend billions more for candy, soda and other products and American sugar farmers increase their sales and profits. But the high price also incentivizes producers of goods that need a sweet kick, including Heinz, to substitute with high fructose corn syrup. Americans are the biggest consumers of HFCS in the world.

The two effects of the higher price–raising the price of domestic sugar and causing substitution towards high fructose corn syrup–illustrate the peculiar political economy of the sugar quota. Most obviously, the sugar quota is supported by domestic sugar producers, including the infamous Fanjul brothers, but it’s also supported and indeed was lobbied for by Archer Daniels Midland the inventors of HFCS! Even though the two sides sit together uneasily, there has apparently been enough profits to go around.


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