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'Throughline': How one company contributed greatly to America's sweet tooth

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you make a resolution to eat more healthy foods in the New Year, you may have to think a lot about the food available on the grocery shelves. And we have some history this morning of how that food changed to include a lot more high-fructose corn syrup. It was originally invented in the 1950s as a sweetener alternative, never really got big until Dwayne Andreas came along. NPR's history podcast Throughline has been looking at the way one company took a little-used product and changed the American diet. Here are our hosts, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah.

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RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: You may have never heard of him, but in the 1970s, Dwayne Andreas was one of the biggest names in the U.S. He was a politically connected CEO of one of the country's biggest agricultural companies, Archer Daniels Midland - or ADM. And by the time he ran across high-fructose corn syrup...

TOM PHILPOTT: It was a product in search of a use.

ABDELFATAH: That's Tom Philpott, a journalist and researcher who's written extensively about American agriculture.

PHILPOTT: So he's got this product. And it's a sweetener. And it's really, really sweet. But the problem is that it's too expensive.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: He can't sell it at a price that's competitive with regular old cane sugar. So ADM comes up with a scheme. The politically savvy Dwayne Andreas was going to find a way to turn high-fructose corn syrup into cash.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the president of the United States.

ABDELFATAH: President Ronald Reagan steps up to a podium. It's a crisp fall day. And he's wearing a long, tan coat over his usual suit and tie. At the podium, he's dwarfed by an enormous metal bin behind him, a bin filled to the brim with corn.

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RONALD REAGAN: This is quite a show you're putting on here. And what a pleasure it is for me to be back home in Illinois.

ABDELFATAH: He's speaking to a crowd gathered at a family-run farm in the heart of America's corn belt.

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REAGAN: Year after year, here in the Midwest, you produce from your rich, black earth a bountiful harvest called the American equivalent of the oil riches in the Persian Gulf.

ARABLOUEI: Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 and became president in 1981. His presidential campaign was full of patriotism. On the campaign trail, he promised to put profit back in farming and put farmers' interests above the world market. And for Dwayne Andreas, this rhetoric presented an opportunity.

PHILPOTT: Jimmy Carter leaves office in 1980. Ronald Reagan takes over. You know, for most people, that's a big contrast. To Dwayne Andreas, he's just a political power player. He's just as tight with Ronald Reagan. And so he goes to work with his lobbying to create a quota on sugar.

ABDELFATAH: A quota on sugar.

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ABDELFATAH: Basically, Dwayne Andreas' plan was to promote the idea of putting limits on foreign sugar to protect domestic sugar companies.

PHILPOTT: There's this history of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean. And with decolonization in the 20th century, there's still these awful sugar plantations that are able to produce sugar really cheap. And this sugar is coming in and sort of overwhelming the American market.

ABDELFATAH: Sugar producers in states like Florida are organizing. Like...

PHILPOTT: How can we stop this? And they get a key ally in Dwayne Andreas.

ARABLOUEI: He throws his support behind them like, yeah, absolutely. We got to put Florida's sugar farmers first. We got to slow down the importing of foreign sugar.

PHILPOTT: And so what the sugar quota does is it says only a certain amount of and a rather small amount of foreign sugar can come into the United States. And once you've hit that quota, imports of sugar are banned. And so that is protecting the domestic sugar industry.

ABDELFATAH: But you might be asking...

PHILPOTT: Why would Dwayne Andreas do that?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. Why would he help the competition in the sweetener market? It's because he's thinking bigger.

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PHILPOTT: It turns out that because there's this quota in place, it raises the price of sugar because American producers are no longer competing with producers in the Caribbean. So the price of sugar rises fairly steeply. And now, suddenly, high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than conventional sugar. And it's also a liquid.

ABDELFATAH: A liquid that could go into pretty much any processed food.

PHILPOTT: And he immediately starts making deals with Coca-Cola and other soft drink manufacturers. You've got to try this stuff. It's cheaper. It's blindingly sweet. You know, you only have to use so much of it. And then slowly, other industries start to find uses for it. It goes into baked goods, TV dinner makers. It just, you know, takes this market by storm.

ABDELFATAH: And what about the sugar industry? Did they realize they were being duped?

PHILPOTT: I think the sugar industry was none too pleased with this development. But they - you know, they made their deal with the devil. And they lived with it.

ARABLOUEI: High-fructose corn syrup isn't used as much today as it was in the late 1980s. But high-fructose corn syrup and other corn-based sweeteners still make up a big portion of the sweetener market. And per capita, Americans are among the biggest consumers of sweeteners in the world. And excessive consumption of these sweeteners is associated with all kinds of health problems, like obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol. You could argue that they've changed our bodies, our sense of taste and even the way our societies function.

PHILPOTT: The genius of the system is that you don't think about any of that when you're enjoying it. We have this system that is in place that we are all part of. You know, we were born into this system where we have all these really unhealthy foods at our disposal for very cheap. But systems don't arise out of nowhere. They're made by people. And I think it's really important for us to, as we look at these systems and we examine them - well, who are the people that were behind them? Who are the architects of these systems?

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INSKEEP: Tom Philpott speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you hear podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.