Is regular sugar greener than high-fructose corn syrup?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
May 19 2009 11:59 AM

May Cause Earth Decay

Is regular sugar greener than high-fructose corn syrup?

A can of soda.
Is high-fructose corn syrup bad for the planet?

A colleague of yours recently debunked the idea that regular sugar is necessarily healthier than high-fructose corn syrup. But what about the health of the planet? Corn needs a lot of processing before it can sweeten my soda, but then again, sugar doesn't exactly sprinkle down from the skies. So which one is more environmentally friendly?

It's true: King Corn is as much a bogeyman for the eco-conscious as the health-conscious. The crop gets a bad rap because it's so ubiquitous—thanks to aggressive farm subsidies, 27 percent of America's farm acres (PDF) are currently devoted to corn, with soybeans and wheat running a close second and third. According to anti-corn crusader Michael Pollan, modern corn hybrids require more pesticides and more fertilizers than any other food crop; this not only requires major inputs of fossil fuels but also causes significant groundwater pollution.

Advertisement

But it's not entirely fair to lay all of that at the sticky feet of high-fructose corn syrup, as the maligned sweetener accounts for only about 5 percent of America's total grain corn production. (That figure rises to about 7 percent when you count other corn sweeteners.) We use a whole lot more corn for fuel alcohol (36 percent in 2008) and animal feed (roughly 50 percent), so if you're concerned about the impact the metastasizing industry is having on the planet, HFCS in your soft drinks and cupcakes may not be the most effective target.

Of course, even at just 5 percent of the overall crop, we're still talking about a lot of farmland: Nearly 4 million acres' worth of grain corn became HFCS in 2008. Compare that with the 1 million acres planted with sugar beets and 872,000 with sugar cane, the two crops that produce the sucrose we generically refer to as "sugar."

Thanks to protectionist trade policies, most of the table sugar we eat in the United States is domestically produced. Organic sugar is an exception—most of that comes from Brazil, Argentina, or Paraguay. Depending on where you live, that could mean a significantly longer farm-to-table journey, even compared with domestic, Hawaiian-grown sugar cane.

Even local cane and beet productions don't have great reputations with environmentalists. First of all, like rice and cotton, sugar cane is a very thirsty crop; according to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 750 to 5,000 gallons of water (PDF) to grow a single acre of sugar cane. The WWF also blames both beets and cane for significant soil erosion (PDF) problems.

In 2007, an Australian sugar cane industry group compared the environmental impacts of growing Australian cane, U.K. beets, and American corn. The study was designed to assess the crops' viability as ethanol feedstocks, but the findings shed some light on our sweetener quandary. The products analyzed were 1 kilogram of sugar, in clarified juice form, from both cane and beets, and 1 kilogram of simple sugar syrup from cornstarch.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.