Blog

The Twinkie Tax

By Jessica Wilson
Program Associate

If you asked most Americans where they thought their tax dollars should go, “making high fructose corn syrup cheaper to produce” probably wouldn’t come out too high on the list.  And yet, we’ve spent billions over the past decades doing exactly that. 

Our just-released report, Apples to Twinkies, unearths the perverse effects of our agricultural policies. Between 1995 and 2010, American taxpayers spent over $260 billion in agricultural subsidies, mostly going to the country’s largest farming operations to grow just a few commodity crops, including corn and soybeans. 

And most of these commodity crops are not simply eaten as-is.  Among other uses, food manufacturers process them into additives like high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils that provide a cheap dose of sweetness and fat to a wide variety of junk food products.  That means our tax dollars are directly subsidizing junk food ingredients.

Add it all up, and the report finds we’ve spent $16.9 billion since 1995 to subsidize four common junk food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soy oils (which are frequently processed further into the hydrogenated vegetable oils you often find on junk food ingredient-lists).  These are empty calories, pure and simple – pure fats, carbohydrates, and sugars. 

If the junk food subsidies were spent directly on consumers, they’d be enough to buy each of America’s 144 million taxpayers 19 Twinkies apiece, every year. 

If you’d rather your tax dollars went somewhere else – fresh fruits and vegetables, say – you’re out of luck.  Since 1995, taxpayers spent only $262 million subsidizing apples, which is the only significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables.  Per taxpayer, that’s less than a quarter of a Red Delicious a year.

Given that we’re currently in the throes of an epidemic of childhood obesity – childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last three decades, with one in five kids aged 6 to 11 now obese – these junk food subsidies are especially irresponsible.

With so much attention on deficits and government spending, it’s time for Congress to take a second look at its priorities and end this wasteful spending.

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