US: Sugar finally more popular than corn syrup

Published: 08/11/2017, 10:03:51 AM

Over the past 17 years, Americans have managed to cut their consumption of sugars by more than 15%, according to Bloomberg.

All of that decline, as is apparent from USDA data released this month, 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.

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.

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.

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 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.