Ron Sterk

Despite the growing rhetoric about caloric sweetener consumption and its impact on obesity, diabetes and other diseases, recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data show per capita deliveries of caloric sweeteners in 2016 continued a 17-year downtrend, with declining corn sweetener deliveries more than offsetting rising sugar deliveries.

Both total caloric sweetener deliveries and per capita deliveries along with per capita calories consumed from caloric sweeteners peaked in 1999, according to U.S.D.A. data, but the rate of decline in total deliveries compared with per capita deliveries and calories consumed has varied significantly during that time, as has the makeup of sweeteners in the total.

Total caloric sweetener deliveries were 20,702,000 short tons, dry basis, in 2016, down 453,000 tons, or 2.1%, from a record 21,155,000 tons in 1999. Per capita deliveries of caloric sweeteners was 128.1 lbs in 2016, down 23.5 lbs, or 15.5%, from a record 151.6 lbs in 1999. The difference is slowly declining total sweetener deliveries coupled with population growth of about 1% annually, which took the estimated population from 279 million in 1999 to just over 323 million in 2016.

Recent U.S.D.A. data show per capita deliveries of caloric sweeteners in 2016 continued a 17-year downtrend.

The mix of caloric sweeteners within the total also has changed considerably over the past 17 years. When total use peaked at 21,155,000 tons in 1999, sugar deliveries were 9,257,000 tons (66.4 lbs per capita), or 43.8% of the total, HFCS deliveries were 8,903,000 tons (63.8 lbs per capita), or 42.1%, and other caloric sweeteners were 2,994,000 tons (21.6 lbs per capita), or 14.1%.

In 2016 with total deliveries at 20,702,000 tons, refined sugar comprised 11,259,000 tons (69.7 lbs per capita), or 54.4% of the total, HFCS deliveries were 6,690,000 tons (41.4 lbs per capita), or 32.3%, with other sweeteners at 2,753,000 tons (17.1 lbs per capita), or 13.3%.

During the period of 1999 through 2016, sugar deliveries increased 2,002,000 tons, or 21.6%, HFCS deliveries declined 2,213,000 tons, or 24.9%, and other sweeteners declined 241,000 tons, or 8%.

HFCS deliveries have never surpassed refined sugar deliveries but came closest when HFCS peaked at 8,998,000 tons in 2002, just 107,000 tons, or 1%, below sugar. HFCS deliveries have declined every year since 2002. But total corn sweetener deliveries (including HFCS, crystalline fructose, dextrose and glucose) were above refined sugar deliveries every year from 1986 through 2009, while refined sugar has been higher every year since. Sugar deliveries have shown a net gain over the 17-year period, including gains every year since 2010, but also declined in 7 of the 17 years.

Per capita calories consumed daily (deliveries minus losses on a calorie versus pound basis) from refined sugar were 192 in 2016, up 3.4% from 185 in 1999, from HFCS were 114, down 35.6% from 177, and from other sweeteners were 47, down 23% from 61, the data showed.

The U.S.D.A. said in its August Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook that per capita refined sugar deliveries have risen about 0.5% annually over the past 15 years while HFCS deliveries have declined 2.7% annually.

“This period coincided with higher input prices due to global commodity price spikes, the growth of the corn-based domestic ethanol production, increased availability of sugar supplies due to increased imports from Mexico, and heightened attention by food manufacturers and consumers to ingredient labeling,” the U.S.D.A. said.

While total consumption of caloric sweeteners still may be higher than optimal, the U.S.D.A. data would suggest that those targeting caloric sweetener consumption as a remedy to obesity and other chronic ailments may be misguided as those health issues have continued to worsen while sweetener consumption has declined. Further, the attack on caloric sodas, mainly in the form of “sugar” taxes, seem especially misdirected as deliveries of HFCS, the primary caloric sweetener used in soda, have declined sharply in recent years.