Food

Sugar Is Finally More Popular Than Corn Syrup Again

Obesity-plagued Americans still love their sweeteners.

Just say no.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Over the past 17 years, Americans have managed to cut their consumption of sugars by more than 15 percent. Here's the latest data, released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Going Easier on the Sweet Stuff

U.S. per-capita annual consumption

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

*Includes honey and "edible syrups"

All of that decline, as is apparent from the chart, has been in corn sweeteners -- consumption of sugar made from cane or beets is actually up a bit since the 1990s. And the overall drop in sweetener use seems to have stalled over the past four years. 1

The biggest story in the data, really, is the rise and fall of high-fructose corn syrup, which came from nowhere in the 1960s to become a ubiquitous sweetener of soft drinks and other things. Then, around the turn of the millennium, it was identified as a prime suspect in the country's obesity epidemic. It's been on the decline ever since:

Rise and Fall of a Sweetener

U.S. per-capita annual consumption of high-fructose corn syrup

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

This appears to be mainly a result of soda falling out of favor. Research firm Beverage Marketing Corp. reported earlier this year that bottled water sales topped soda sales in the U.S. for the first time in 2016, and that soda consumption is down by almost a quarter since 2006. But soft-drink makers have also been shifting away from corn syrup and back to actual sugar. And energy drinks, which have supplanted traditional soda among some consumers (especially young male ones), tend to use sugar rather than corn sweeteners.

There is some research suggesting that high-fructose corn syrup brings more negative health effects than conventional sugar, but on the whole they are both -- at least in the quantities that the average American consumes them -- not exactly good for us. The American Heart Association's recommended daily added sugars limit for men comes out to 29 pounds a year. For women it's 20.1 pounds. Actual per capita consumption in 2016 was, according to the USDA, 128.1 pounds.

The U.S. has the dubious distinction of being the world leader in per capita sugar and sweeteners consumption, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:

We're No. 1!

Per-capita sugar and sweeteners consumption, 2013

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

For those doing the math, no, 63.8 kilograms (2013 U.S. per capita sugar and sweeteners consumption as reported by the FAO) is not the same as the 128.3 pounds in per capita sugar consumption reported for 2013 by the USDA. It's 140.6 pounds -- about what U.S. consumption was in 2005. I'm just going to chalk that up to differences in measurement methods, though, and move on.

Getting sugar consumption to resume its decline seems like it ought to be one of the top public-policy priorities of our time. After the decades-long wrong turn into targeting dietary fat and cholesterol as major causes of obesity and heart disease, medical researchers have been piling up ever more evidence that high sugar consumption is what's really behind these and scores of other health problems. And while I guess you could argue that the egregious expert errors of past years on diet should make us wary of all expert dietary advice, I'm more of the opinion that the truth is finally winning out.

Local soda taxes have so far been among the most direct anti-sugar efforts. 2 I don't really get the argument that they represent some major new advancement of the nanny state -- taxing products that are seen as imposing higher-than-average social costs (alcohol, cigarettes) has a long heritage in the U.S. But given how rare soda taxes still are at this point, it's clear that information has been a more potent depressor of sugar consumption, and will probably continue to be so.

The key, it seems to me, is how the information is presented. With soft drinks (and to some extent fruit juices), word got out that they were dangerously potent sugar-delivery devices and thus to be avoided. Millions of people subsequently avoided them. "Don't drink soda" is a nice, simple rule. As business scholars Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt wrote a couple of years ago:

Simple rules consist of a handful of guidelines applied to a specific activity or decision, such as deciding what to eat. They’re intended to offer a limited amount of guidance, so there’s no need for a lot of them. Keeping the number of rules to a handful forces you to focus on what matters most.

After spurning soda, the rules on sugar consumption get a little more complicated. I try to avoid sugar for reasons beyond long-term health concerns (if I eat more than the tiniest amount before dinner, I'm out of sorts for the rest of the day), so I have become an obsessive nutrition-label reader. As a result I know that "regular" or "original" (as opposed to "unsweetened") almond milk and soy milk contain not-insignificant amounts of sugar, that Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup is about 11 percent sugar, 3 and that Honey Nut Cheerios are almost candy. 4 So I stay away from all three.

Most people can't be expected to be quite that obsessive, and food manufacturers -- who know that people like the taste of sugar, if not necessarily the idea of it -- tend to do what they can to obscure its use. I've ranted before about how cereal makers have gone from having a clear, simple-rule-enabling divide between regular cereals (Cheerios, Corn Flakes, Wheat Chex) and breakfast candy (Cap'n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms) to filling in the middle ground with the likes of Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Chex and "natural" brands such as the gluten-free, vegan, 27-percent-sugar EnviroKidz Gorilla Munch. It can be hard to keep up, and to devise simple rules to help (other than, I guess, "don't eat breakfast cereal," which is an approach a lot of people seem to be taking these days).

The new added-sugar labeling rules approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year -- and put on hold in June by President Donald Trump's appointees at the agency -- weren't really going to make things any clearer. What might do the trick would be big labels on the front of food packages saying what percentage of their volume is sugar. (Here's a simple-ish rule: Don't eat anything that's more than 20 percent sugar for breakfast.) That's certainly not going to happen anytime soon, though.

For now, the biggest government-imposed check on sugar consumption may be the doing of Florida's sugar-growing billionaires, the Fanjul brothers -- who, as detailed in a Bloomberg News profile this week, keep sugar prices in the U.S. higher than they would otherwise be by lobbying successfully to maintain trade barriers against foreign sugar. So thanks for looking out for us, Alfy and Pepe!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. All these sweeteners are sugars, which is why I referred to them as such in the opening paragraph. But I've decided that referring to "corn syrup" or "sweeteners" vs. "sugar" is less confusing than talking about fructose vs. glucose vs. sucrose (which is actually a combination of the first two).

  2. Yes, Michael Bloomberg, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bloomberg LP, which publishes Bloomberg View, has been the most prominent advocate of such taxes. But as it says at the bottom of the column, these are my opinions and not necessarily those of Bloomberg LP or its owners.

  3. Which of course goes down to 5.5 percent once you add that can of water, but still ...

  4. They're 32 percent sugar. A Snickers bar is 51 percent sugar.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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