Joe Maller.com

US obesity rates, soft drinks and high-fructose corn syrup

This flash US obesity infographic was mentioned to me as part of an ongoing discussion about information graphics. The original source data likely came from the PPT presentation linked on the CDC’s Overweight and Obesity page. The CDC maps present annual data from 1985-2005, CNN only chose to show six incongruous years to remove edge-case fluctuation. I threw together a quick animation showing the complete dataset:

United States Obesity Map, 1985-2005

Michelle observed that the bar for information graphics was set “very, very low.” People are accustomed to lousy graphics, default-styled PowerPoint charts, plain Excel tables and raw scatter plots. Even the slightest attention to design becomes automatically exceptional.

I think that map chart would work better as a line plot, but then I’m most curious about whether or not there was a tipping point after which the population started gaining weight. Personally, I believe things turned for the worse between 1985 and 1988.

Mid-80s transition

In 1985, amidst the New Coke fiasco, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks switched from cane and beet sugar to high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Two main factors figured into that decision: Significantly increased potency and effectiveness of HFCS vs conventional sugars, and cost savings due US government corn subsidies and manipulation of domestic sugar prices. Bottom line was that soda got much cheaper to produce, thereby making “free refills” and oversized portions an economically sound loss-leader.

Three years later in 1988, Taco Bell introduced unlimited free drink refills and 7-Eleven started selling the 64-ounce Double Gulp, “biggest soft drink on the market.” I couldn’t find a source, but that was doubtlessly a response to escalating portions and unlimited refills among competitors. This was also about the time the soda manufacturers started experimenting with 16 ounce cans, 20 ounce bottles and other larger portions.

The following chart illustrates domestic per capita consumption of soft drinks from 1970-1995. Note the spike between 1987-1988:
Soft drink vs. candy consumption, 1970-1995

Soda got cheaper, so people drank more soda. Snack foods also got cheaper as they also switched from sugar to HFCS, so people ate more snacks. More soda + more snacks = more obesity. This isn’t rocket science.


  • Brock

    When the percentages ebb, I wonder how much of that is due to mortality rates directly related to being overweight, or people making a concerted effort to eat/be healthier.

    Surely there must be a link here as well:
    http://www.kraftfoodservice.com/NR/rdonlyres/1BC3D5BD-9978-40AB-B754-737516239090/0/barbecueOneNationDivided.gif

  • http://www.ViceBustingDiet.com Julia Havey

    It isn’t rocket science! The use of HFCS has gone up 1000% in the past 20 years, obesity has gone up 100% in the same time. Compelling evidence if we were a court of law.

    The ONLY diet book with the balls to go after the Fast Foods and Soft Drink makers and point the blame at them for causing obesity and to single them out as the solution to solving it is The Vice Busting Diet. In it, I name the 3 biggest causes of Obesity; soft drinks, fast food and TV viewing i.e. sedentary lifestyles!

    Carpe Diet!
    Julia Havey

  • http://www.joemaller.com Joe

    Julia, thanks for commenting. I specifically didn’t get into what I believe are solutions because this was getting long already and I feel it’s too important to short-change. You seem like you’re doing great work.

    I believe people must understand that they are in charge of their lives and able to change themselves and their habits. Any emphasis on being a victim of eternal forces provides a clear path to giving up. We will always be presented with bad choices, too many people seem to declare themselves powerless in the face of those temptations.

  • Patrick

    Wow Joe, I’m so happy you posted this, as it provides a really compelling illustration of this problem. I’ll be passing it on to others.

    As I’ve considered a career change into medicine, I took a job in a hospital as a physical therapy tech for 3 months last year (career intelligence gathering). I was shocked to find that upwards of 75% of my patients (most over age 65) had type-2 diabetes. Most had no idea they were even in trouble. They’d come in with sugar levels upwards of 350 (under 110 is normal). As a people, I hate to say it, but we’re in some serious trouble as far as lifestyles go. Forget tech investments. if you want to make some money Joe, invest in companies that manufacture diabetic treatment solutions and blood testing equipment. It’s a sure winner as a market category.

    There was a very interesting study released 3 years ago on the topic of soda. They studied the incidence of forearm breaks in teenagers over a 3 or 4 decade period. 1967-70, 1977-80, 1987-90 and 1997-2000

    Most of this bone density growth happens during our pre-teen years (9-12 years). They also looked at soda consumption rates versus the consumption of milk. As you might expect, during the 60’s they had low incidences of forearm breaks, higher milk consumption and lower soda consumption. By the late 90’s those figures were dramtically different. many bone breaks, low milk and high soda consumption. Soda’s upturn was almost identical in slope to milk’s downturn. The conclusion was that the popularity of soda was probably responsible for the lower bone density being seen, and the higher likelihood of future bone breaks. They were particularly worried about the hip fractures these kids will probably face when they take tumbles in their old age. As one who has suffered a recent hip fracture, I can attest to the fact that it is a tough thing to recover from.

    Another thing: Go to a corner bodega. Do you see any 12 oz coke cans anymore? No. All you see now are the 20oz plastic bottles. The soda companies have essentially removed the 12 oz cans from circulation. And I doubt it is strictly because of the cost of aluminum vs HDPE. They’re pushing this cheap crap upon us. I did some work for Coke back at Organic. Coke’s corporate marketing strategy is to change the fact that the entire world population consumes a coca cola product every 3 days..to a coke product consumed EVERY DAY. Nice goal, eh? Seems to be working.

    And another other thing: Corn syrup has one horrible effect that sucrose never had. It impedes the hormone that tells the body to actually feel full. The more corn syupr laden stuff you consume, the more you feel compelled to keep eating.

    I’m thankful for my wife. My son is 3 1/2 years old. He has not consumed so much as a full cup of soda. We try to keep corn syrup products away from him at all costs. I’ve given up all soda consumption as well (and it was hard to do).

  • Patrick

    So, now must ask:

    Was “New Coke” just a ploy to get us away from “cane sugar coke” so they could introduce “HFCS coke” (coke classic) and have us not notice the slight difference in taste?

    Or is this absolute common knowledge? Was I sleeping or something?

  • http://www.joemaller.com Joe

    Pat, the idea that New Coke was a ploy to mask the transition to Coke Classic is a popular conspiracy theory (more on Snopes).

    I have never professionally experienced the level of competency necessary for a business or corporation to pull off a conspiracy like this, so I call Hanlon’s Razor and blame this on short-sightedness.

  • Patrick

    I’m just wondering if Coke Classic was the first time that it was sweetened primarily with HF Corn Syrup. If so, then I’d be more inclined to believe it as a possibility.

    If not, then I can never see that weird year as a good one for Coke. But it sure did cement the Coke brand as the premum soft drink of the world.

  • Patrick

    I just read the whole conspiracy theory blurb:

    Even if this scenario is true, I do not view it as a conspiracy (per se). HFCS (compared to sugar) was not exactly controversial back in 1984. Lowering the cost of a product is nothing new to industry (even if it means changing an ingredient). CCE already knew the brand’s worldwide popularity, and they probably did not want to see any potential bad press about a change in taste, so I’d almost expect them to pull a move like this. I think the link you cited, the guy is overreacting. My wife used to work for P&G. Knowing their corporate MO, if they were the maker of a softdrink, they’d handle an ingredient change in a similar manner if it meant a double-digit % cost savings on the ingredient list.

    I do have memory of “Old Coke” versus “Classic Coke”. The sugar stuck to your teeth differently. I’m very curious to see an early 1984 coke can versus a 1985 classic coke can, and see the ingredients list.

  • Patrick

    Funny, I tried to add the HFCS conspiracy theory to the “contorversies” paragraphs about Coca Cola on wikipedia. That page is one of the VERY few that are on editing lockdown.

  • http://lycos.com kinderegg

    I have heard that new coke was designed to fail. They then used that product lapse to replace sucrose with HFC which is more significant that you might imagine. They then released HFC coke as coke classic to a public that had been without coke for a year. Therefor no one noticed the change in flavor.
    Coke with sugar is still available at mexican, and possibly other, markets. Mexican coke is still made with sugar for whatever reason.

    Hey Patrick, I am trying to limit consumption of HFC soda was on the chopping block so now I only drink diet soda or in that rare case a Mexican one.