KANSAS CITY — Sweeteners remains one of the more complicated markets as it involves sugar, the U.S. sugar program, trade agreements, corn sweeteners, high-intensity sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, natural syrups, G.M.O. versus non-G.M.O., added sugar labeling, and more, all with a backdrop of supposed consumer avoidance and negative publicity about obesity, diabetes and other diseases.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data suggest that per capita sugar consumption is declining, albeit slightly, joining high-fructose corn syrup that has been on a downhill trend for two decades. Speakers at the recent International Sweetener Symposium spoke of the “war on sugar” and the decline in sugar consumption both domestically and globally, or at least the decline in the rate of consumption growth.
The U.S.D.A. in July updated its annual caloric sweetener delivery and consumption estimates for last year. Consumption data speak best to calories actually consumed, accounting for losses at various stages along the marketing chain, even at the consumer level, from initial deliveries. Total U.S. caloric sweetener consumption was estimated at 73 lbs per person in 2018, down 2.7% from 2017 and the third consecutive year of decline. That’s down 18% from the peak of 89.3 lbs in 1999. The 2018 number includes 40.3 lbs of refined sugar, down 0.7% from 2017; HFCS at 22.1 lbs, down 7% and the lowest since 1984; and “other” syrups at 10.7 lbs, unchanged.
Interestingly, despite considerable hoopla and a spate of natural if not exotic sweetener introductions, the “other syrups” category has been nearly flat the past five years and, though up 10% from 2013, is 21% below its peak of 13.6 lbs per person in 1997.
While obviously in a different category, the U.S.D.A. data do not track stevia use or consumption since it’s not a caloric sweetener. Use of stevia continues to grow, though from a small base, and may well be contributing to the downturn in sugar consumption.
There has been little question about the downward spiral in per capita HFCS consumption — down 41% from its peak of 37.5 lbs in 1999 with last year’s 7% drop one of the largest. Corn refiners have offset much of their lost U.S. business with increased exports to Mexico, although HFCS consumption there is forecast to decline 4.6% this year.
More surprising to some was last year’s decline in U.S. sugar consumption, which had been gaining market share from HFCS, hitting at 40.9 lbs per person in 2016, a gain of 14% since dipping to a multi-year low of 35.8 lbs per person in 2003.
While it may be too early to tell if the slippage of per capita sugar consumption of more than half a pound over the past two years is the beginning of a longer-term trend, it certainly has raised some eyebrows.
The decline was even greater on a per capita delivery basis, which the U.S.D.A. noted in its July Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook was down 2.6% from 2017 at 124.4 lbs per person (versus per capita consumption down 0.7%).
Many ask the question of whether the global “anti-sugar” campaign is the cause of the decline in sugar consumption. While it may not be the only cause, many agree it is beginning to have some effect. The Nielsen Co. estimates that about 40 countries now have some form of beverage tax, some as high as 50%. In the United States, the beverage tax push appears to have slowed with a few states passing legislation prohibiting individual cities from imposing new beverage taxes.
Probably the greater impact is coming from food and beverage manufacturers’ reformulation of products to reduce added sugars. There is limited, if any, data (versus anecdotal reports) to reflect how much sugar is being removed, but there is no question reformulation is gaining momentum, whether spurred on by avoidance of taxes, added sugar labeling, or some other reason.
It is not necessarily bad to eat less sugar, especially if one is consuming more than the generally accepted 10% maximum calories from added sugar based on a 2,000-calorie diet outlined in the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. That’s 200 calories a day, or about one candy bar.
Courtney Gaine, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of The Sugar Association, informed attendees at the recent symposium that consumption of added sugars were within 70 calories of the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendation. That’s about half of a candy bar daily.
The sweetener industry, especially sugar, is in a tight spot. Consumption of its product appears to be slipping, but it can’t logically encourage people to eat more sugar. Instead, moderation, more active lifestyles and science-based education are part of the industry’s mantra. Only time will tell whether it’s enough to counter the anti-sugar rhetoric and sugar consumption can be maintained at a healthful level.