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Can Banning Big Gulps have an Environmental Benefit?

Credit: Dan Klotz

At the end of May, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on “Big Gulps” in the Big Apple.  Food service establishments would not be able to sell “sugary drinks”—defined as non-alcoholic beverages that are not more than half made up of milk or milk substitute and are sweetened by the manufacturer with a calorie total exceeding 25 calories per 8 ounces—in sizes greater than 16 ounces.

More than a month later, libertarian columnists are still protesting the dominance of the “nanny state.” Soda companies (and their lobbyists) are protesting the end of freedom. And of course, Mayor Bloomberg can’t go anywhere without the big gulp ban being brought up—especially (and understandably) when he delivers the keynote address at a hot-dog eating contest weigh-in.

An interesting question in this public health debate is whether or not cutting down on super-sized sodas will have an environmental benefit.  The answer could be found in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a ubiquitous food additive that muscled aside other sweeteners in the American diet thanks in large part to subsidies given to farmers to grow corn. Soda and other drinks that you will find in these big gulps are largely sweetened with HFCS.

The U.S. spent more than $50 billion subsidizing corn in the past decade. While only about 4.7 percent of US-grown corn is used to produce HFCS, these subsidies lower the cost of corn and by extension the cost of HFCS by about $243 million every year.  As a result, the cheap price of high fructose corn syrup has made larger portions of soda more affordable.

Certainly, the industrial process used to manufacture HFCS is not environmentally friendly.  Lye (also known as caustic soda) is used to remove corn starch from the kernel. Hydrochloric acid and an assortment of enzymes are added as the mix is heated and pressurized.  It is also worth pointing out that lye has been sourced from industrial plants that use mercury in the production process (creating federal superfund sites that take decades to clean up), and scientists have found mercury in commercial brands of HFCS as well as products listing HCFS as an ingredient.

Eliminating the big gulp could cut down on HFCS consumption, it stands to reason, lowering demand and thus reducing the environmental footprint of its production process. It would be a stretch, however, to deduce that the demand could be reduced enough to have an impact though.

The broader answer on the big gulp and the environment can be found in research examining the obesity epidemic itself.  More than one third of all Americans are obese, due to a wide variety of lifestyle and environmental factors—including supersized portions.  Researchers have found that the high rates of obesity in the U.S. and other wealthier countries generate an additional one billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gasses every year.  Countries with heavier populations require more food and the larger weight places a greater demand on the transportation sector—and both food and transportation are primary contributors to climate change.

Obesity has an especially high impact on the transportation sector, because moving heavier people from place to place obviously requires more energy.  Researchers have examined a broad variety of indicators—from airline fuel costs to automobile mileage—and the majority have verified this conclusion. One particular study concluded that reducing the average weight in the wealthier countries by five kilograms can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation sector by ten million metric tonnes annually.

When seen in this lens, Mayor Bloomberg’s big-gulp ban—and any other initiative to help American lose weight—can have a significant environmental benefit. As it turns out, what’s good for your health is good for the planet as well.

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