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.