Sorry for giving you corn syrup, Canada

Is obesity a top NAFTA import?

Looks like it’s time to apologize to the Canadians again. They’ve given us poutine and Leonard Cohen and good manners and we…are making them fat. A recently released study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal made waves this week, throwing some cold water on the idea of idyllic open trade borders. The study’s takeaway? NAFTA has led to big increases in Canadian corn syrup consumption, with a possible corollary uptick in obesity.

The typical arguments against free trade are long and storied, from the gradual muddying of cultural identities (Vive la France!) to the global loosening of environmental and human rights restrictions. But this new study, something of an outlier in its linking of tariffs and consumer health, adds a whole new dimension to the debate around globalization.

In modern healthy eating orthodoxy, high-fructose corn syrup bears the brunt of many a pointed finger. Its ubiquity in so many American processed foods, as well as various studies that link it to obesity in mice, have given HFCS quite the dastardly reputation. It has been disputed that this sweetener is any worse than other added sugars, but heavy corn syrup consumption will certainly do your body no favors.

Roughly 38% of Canadians are obese. Corn syrup isn’t helping.

On to the study. Before NAFTA was implemented, Canada had a 5 percent tariff on corn syrup imports. Post-NAFTA, that tariff was removed. And the study found that between 1994 (NAFTA’s first year) and 1998, Canadian corn syrup intake ballooned, from 21.2 calories a day in 1994 to 62.9 calories a day. Consumption of other types of sugar that did not have tariffs removed (e.g. beet sugar), remained fairly static.

It would seem indisputable that the loosening of restrictions led to this significant spike; other conclusions get a bit more murky. Though it’s tempting to link those findings to upticks in Canadian obesity and diabetes during that time period, the study’s authors caution this is speculative. Obesity rates were already rising in Canada; corn syrup may have just provided a new way to get there.

Additionally, past research has put free trade’s weight gain onus less on tariff reductions and more on multinational advertising. As in, when a country opens its doors to new products, their makers often blitz consumers with billboards and other ads. When those ads are for, say, Coke, the results on consumer health are unsurprising. “There’s a huge issue with foreign direct investment and advertising, which has become very aggressive,” Joseph Glauber, former head economist at the USDA, told the Washington Post. “And that’s all a part of trade liberalization.”

So whether or not corn syrup is the primary driver of Canada’s current obesity epidemic—roughly 38% of Canadians are obese—it certainly isn’t helping. When it comes to importing syrup, we certainly got a better deal on this side of the border.

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Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.