Sugar intake in the spotlight

by Ron Sterk
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Everyone knew it was coming. A few years ago reductions in both the amount and type of fat (saturated) were targeted. More recently salt reduction came into focus. The last of the “big three” was sugar, and from all appearances, it may have worn the largest “bulls-eye” yet.

The anti-sugar battle (really anti-sweetener because sugar, corn sweeteners and other caloric sweeteners must be included), has been gaining momentum for some time, but it appears to have moved into a higher gear at the start of 2016. While not a surprise, a significant challenge to the sweetener industry came in the form of revised 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (D.G.A.) announced Jan. 7 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that for the first time recommended added sugars not exceed 10% of daily calories consumed.

A rough calculation shows reducing sweetener consumption to the 10%-or-less level would reduce sweetener demand by about 25%. That reduction is based on the D.G.A.’s statement that, “added sugars account on average for about 270 calories, or more than 13% of calories per day in the U.S. population.” (Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, 270 calories equal 13.5%. The 10% level, or 200 calories, would require a 26% reduction.)

Caloric sweetened beverages are a target.

The U.S.D.A. in its Jan. 12 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates forecast deliveries (use) of sugar for food at 11,955,000 short tons, raw value, in 2015-16 (October-September marketing year). A 25% reduction would be 2,988,750 tons, bringing use down to 8,966,250 tons. That amount, interestingly, is slightly more than forecast 2015-16 domestic production of 8,934,000 tons.

Domestic sugar production could supply the reduced demand under the D.G.A., but it’s far from that simple. Total U.S. sugar supply was forecast at 13,802,000 tons in 2015-16, or 54% more than the reduced needs indicated in the D.G.A., due to carryover and imports, many of which are tied to trade agreements. That doesn’t include what one would expect to be a like reduction in the use of corn sweeteners, which already are produced domestically.

But experience shows Americans don’t pay too much attention to the D.G.A., so the impact on sugar won’t be as great as it could be. And science tells us at this point that the average consumer has no way of knowing how much added sugar is in the food they eat. That is where the second and perhaps more significant challenge comes to sweeteners: listing added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel.

Bowl of sugar cubes
Public policymakers appear to be taking a stronger stance to reduce sugar consumption.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year proposed the Nutrition Facts Panel list Daily Reference Value and Per cent Daily Value for added sugars. The industry would have at least a couple of years to implement the F.D.A. rule once it becomes final, likely sometime this year.

Caloric sweetened beverages are a target, although most attempts to invoke “sugar taxes” by some municipalities have failed to garner voter approval, unlike in Mexico, where the federal government implemented such a tax in 2014. In the United States, a report commissioned by Congress proposed that sugar-sweetened beverages be excluded from the list of eligible items that could be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Commentary supporting the new Dietary Guidelines indicates beverages make up 47% of total added sugar consumption.

Andy Briscoe, Sugar Association
Andy Briscoe

Another twist in the sugar drama came with what appeared to be the unexpected resignation on Jan. 12 of one of the sugar industry’s top lobbyists, Andy Briscoe, after nearly 13 years at the helm of The Sugar Association. He was replaced on Jan. 13 on an interim basis by Courtney Gaine, Ph.D., previously the group’s vice-president of scientific affairs.

The sweetener industry hasn’t been silent, but it must walk a fine line when the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of workers from beet and cane growers to confectionery manufacturers depends at least in part on products deemed to be consumed in excess and major contributors to such medical issues as obesity and diabetes. Many food manufacturers already have taken the initiative to reduce sweetener use (cereal manufacturers) or provide lower-calorie options (mid-calorie drinks).

“Everybody recognizes it is important for Americans to eat healthy diets within caloric needs, but strong scientific evidence should support all dietary recommendations,” The Sugar Association said after the Guidelines were announced.

And there is the issue of personal responsibility on the part of Americans who choose what food and beverages they buy and consume. The industry has long stressed the need for moderation in consumption of sweetened products.

Sugar producers, corn sweetener producers and industrial sweetener users rarely have been on the same side of the aisle (note the recently-settled multi-billion dollar sugar users/corn sweeteners lawsuit, the sugar producers/sugar users ongoing battle over the U.S. sugar program, the sugar producers/sugar users fight over sugar imports in both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S./Mexico countervailing/anti-dumping case, etc.). All three groups squarely are in the anti-sweetener crosshairs, and it may be time to unite.

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