The Simple Reason Junk Food Is So Cheap

Last Update: April 6, 2021

Hate paying taxes every year? Trade in your suit and tie for a pair of overalls. Instead of handing over part of your hard-earned paycheck every April, you could get a handsome sum of money from the government if you become a corn farmer.

It’s true. From 2014 to 2018, the U.S. government will pay farmers over $24 billion in subsidies. It’s a mind-boggling sum of money to think about, especially considering how long the government has been paying out these subsidies.

Farming can be a high-risk job; single crop farms run the risk of overproducing, and devaluing their product in order to sell it all, or transversely having a year without a good harvest and not making any profit. In order to prevent serious loss, and to protect farmers, the government gives money in the form of subsidies to farmers that grow certain commodity crops. Of these, corn is certainly the biggest and most profitable. Used in our food, as feed for livestock, converted to ethanol products, and even transformed into plastic, it’s one of our most versatile crops.

What’s the problem?

Because the government rewards corn farmers for larger output, factory farms yield a highly processed, genetically engineered, and chemical laden product that gets funnelled into our food system.

It’s because of the extra cash corn farmers earn for the crop that we’ve become so reliant on corn in the first place. Government subsidies to corn farmers directly impact the food that we’re served in restaurants, the products we buy in grocery stores, and the meals our children eat in their school cafeterias.

Since 1995, 75 percent of government subsidies have gone to just 10 percent of farmers. And it’s not your mom-and-pop farmers that are reaping the benefits of government subsidies. It’s the hundred-acre factory farms that grow genetically modified corn crops and produce millions of pounds of crops a year.

Why should you care?

Cheap, low-quality corn means cheap, low-quality food for Americans.

From 1995 to 2010, $77.1 billion went to corn subsidies. And the overabundance of this golden crop meant that we needed to figure out a way to use corn without it going to waste. Enter the rise of high fructose corn syrup, the “natural” sweetener and byproduct of heavily processed corn.

The low cost of corn, thanks to subsidies, has made it even cheaper to produce this sugar substitute that’s found in everything from soda to kids’ gummy vitamins. Processed food companies save about $100 million a year when they use HFCS in the place of cane sugar. And not only do these large corporations cut costs on production of junk foods thanks to HFCS, they also mean lower prices for consumers. If a gallon of freshly squeezed orange juice costs $5 and a gallon of orange soda costs $1.99, many shoppers watching their wallets will opt for the cheaper option.

The jury is still out on whether high fructose corn syrup is worse for us than sugar—inevitably, they both have deleterious effects on the cardiovascular system, blood sugar, and inflammation. But, the rise of HFCS and corn in general has contributed to the American obesity epidemic by making overly sweet, processed food cheaper and more accessible than healthier options.

What can you do?

Make an impact with the way you spend your dollars. Don’t buy into products that still use high fructose corn syrup, or shop brands that continue to source their corn from non-organic, GMO-filled farms. Instead, opt for smaller brands that source their ingredients directly from farmers who are also committed to organic crops, and avoid anything with HFCS in the ingredient list.

Photo credit: Parshotam Lal Tandon via Flickr

We believe that everyone deserves the right to access healthy food. But even in the United States, it can prove impossible for some families. So we created Thrive Gives: a program that gives access, family by family, to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food. Click here to see if you qualify for a free Thrive Gives membership! 

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Michelle Pellizzon

Certified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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