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NAFTA at fault for ruining Canadian waistlines says Bocconi University

Posted: 4 July 2017 | | No comments yet

According to new research published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal), The North America Free Trade Agreement might be blamed for unhealthy eating in Canada.

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“In our study we find evidence of a strong link between eliminating tariffs (taxes on imports) on high-fructose corn syrup (an industrial sweetener widely used in a variety of processed food and beverage products, including soft-drinks, ice cream and biscuits) and the obesity epidemic that has affected Canada”, says Bocconi University’s David Stuckler, one of the co-authors.

The structuring of tariffs in NAFTA, which separated food and beverages containing cane and beet sugars from those with high-fructose corn syrup has changed during the years. Tariffs were removed from food and drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup between 1994 and 1998 but remained on cane and beet syrups.

“Here we take advantage of an exceptional natural experiment in which tariffs on high-fructose corn syrup were withdrawn, within an existing system of free trade in goods”, the authors write.

Between 1994 and 2000 Canadian imports of high-fructose corn syrup from the US more than doubled to 16,000 metric tons, substituting other less caloric, but more expensive, sweeteners. The study, covering 1985-2000, found that lower tariffs on high-fructose corn syrup were associated with an increase of about 41.6 kcal in caloric sweeteners consumed per person/per day in Canada. This increase in the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup correlates with a significant rise in obesity rates, from 5.6% in 1985 to 14.8% in 1998, as well as increases in type- 2 diabetes.

“Even a modest rise of an excess of 2% of an adult’s daily caloric intake need can have a big effect on an entire population”, Prof. Stuckler explains.

“Small calories surpluses cumulate over time. To explain the entire rise in population obesity over the past several decades, for example, only requires about a calories surplus of 100-150 kcal per person per day on average”.

The study provides evidence on the impact that a free trade agreement such as NAFTA may have on diet and health.

“Our analysis of NAFTA suggests that new trade deals are consequential not only in financial terms, but could also harm population health as lower tariffs[WU4]  increase consumption of hazardous, unhealthy food items like high-fructose corn syrup,” say the authors.

The authors note that their findings are consistent with other studies showing a change in food environments in countries that enter trade deals with the United States. These trade agreements may have important implications for health policy as NAFTA is seen as a blueprint for future free trade agreements.

In the European Union, for instance, tariffs on high fructose corn syrup imports from the US are significant, but they could be wiped out should the EU follow Canada’s footsteps and sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP with the US. The production of high-fructose corn syrup in Europe is currently subject to a stringent production quota, expected, though, to be abolished in October 2017.

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