Putting the sweetener debate into context

by Ron Sterk
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Consumption of sweeteners continues to decline as critics claim too much availability.

While sweeteners — mainly sugar and high-fructose corn syrup — have been identified as a major cause of soaring obesity and diabetes rates around the world, sweetener consumption in the United States has been declining for 15 years and sugar consumption is down markedly from about 40 years ago. The mix of sweeteners consumed — again sugar and high-fructose corn syrup — also has flip-flopped during the same time.

Sweeteners are among the big three (fat, salt, sugar) ingredient categories coming into the sights of industry critics as “bad-for-you” ingredients. The items in one form or another and in widely varying amounts are key ingredients that give food items desirable taste, mouthfeel and other sensory perceptions desired by consumers. While many of the changes sought by consumer groups and implemented over time by government agencies have been valid, others have not always been supported by science and sometimes, especially early in the process, have played more on emotion and in recent years used social media to promote unproven claims.

Such may be the case with sweeteners, although most would agree Americans (and people in many other developed countries) consume more than enough sweeteners, or at least have them available.

In the case of sweeteners, much of the focus is currently at the emotional level. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-publicized attempt to tax “large sugary drinks” is a prime example. The effort was struck down in the New York court system before it was implemented last year. But efforts for taxing or labeling for added sugar didn’t die in New York. If anything they have gained momentum, not unlike current efforts seeking to label foods containing bioengineered ingredients.

Vermont and California both have seen failed attempts at sugar labeling. California lawmakers on June 17 rejected a bill that would have required a warning label developed by public health advocates for sodas and other “sugary drinks,” according to a report in the Capital Press. The legislative effort failed as lawmakers doubted a label would change consumer behavior, the report said. The beverage industry said the bill was unfair because it did not also apply to other foods and drinks, such as lattes.

The intended label, modeled after alcohol and cigarette warnings, would have read “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”

Last year a similar sugar labeling bill failed in Vermont. Berkeley, Calif., and San Francisco are said to be considering putting “sugary” drink tax measures on their ballots this November.

One of the more aggressive efforts was the “Sugar Bites” campaign in Contra Costa county in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first phase of which began in May 2013 and depicted “sugary” drinks as “snarling monsters with sharp teeth held by anxious children.” The ad campaign won awards. It encouraged parents to “protect” their children from soda, juice, flavored milk and sports drinks and give them water instead so as to combat obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

The sugar industry, understandably, is even more vocal about the misinformation in some of the “sugary” drink campaigns. They are quick to note the misuse of the word “sugary” in that many, if not most, of the label and tax efforts are aimed at drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, not sugar. While it may be scientifically argued that the human body processes sugar and HFCS in the same way, the sugar industry suggests the term “sugary” vilifies sugar without mentioning HFCS, which is the sweetener of choice in many soft drinks and flavored milk.

“The ‘sugary beverages’ terminology is misleading for consumers and leaves little room for a real debate about solving the serious problem of obesity in America,” Jim Simon, manager of the American Sugar Cane League, said last week. “Labeling sugar as the ‘enemy’ prevents us from focusing our resources on studying scientifically verified and proven interventions dealing with obesity.”

While it’s well known the sugar and corn sweetener sides generally don’t get along (in fact there is pending legal action between the two), the manufacture of sugar and corn sweeteners clearly is different and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Availability Data System shows varying trends over several decades.

Total per capita availability of caloric sweeteners peaked near 161 lbs (dry weight) in 1999, after climbing fairly steadily from around 130 lbs in the late 1960s, according to U.S.D.A. data. Since 1999, total per capita availability has declined about 14% to around 139 lbs and has held near that level since 2009.

Availability of glucose and dextrose (both derived from corn) has been consistent at about 15 lbs (dry weight) per person during that 50-year period. Per capita supply of honey and edible syrups has held constant at low levels.

High-fructose corn syrup came onto the scene in the late 1960s. Annual per capita availability rose dramatically from about 10 lbs in the late 1970s to a peak of just over 63 lbs in 1999, the same year total caloric sweetener availability peaked. The meteoric rise coincided with the adoption of 55% HFCS used in sodas and other flavored drinks.

Since 1999, annual per capita HFCS availability has declined more than 25% to around 46 lbs before dipping to a near 30-year low in 2013. The U.S.D.A. noted the decline from 1999 to 2007 was almost entirely in 55% HFCS due to reduced soda consumption while 42% HFCS used in baking applications held about constant.

Annual refined beet and cane sugar per capita availability hovered around 100 lbs until the early 1970s, then declined 40% to a 50-plus year low of 60 lbs in 1986 as HFCS use increased. Sugar availability recovered to just over 66 lbs in 1999, the same year HFCS and total caloric sweetener availability peaked. Sugar availability dipped below 61 lbs in 2003 but has increased and held at around 66 lbs since 2011.

One key point in the sweetener debate was made in the latest Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook in which the U.S.D.A. noted a significant difference between sweetener availability, which is derived from production and population data, and actual consumption. The department estimates less than 60% of the sugar and corn sweetener available is actually consumed, with about 11% lost between retail and consumer and another 30% lost (of the total) at the consumer level due to food waste and spoilage. Thus, a more accurate estimate of sweetener consumption may be about 40% less than the amount available, with groups seeking to limit consumption usually focusing on the higher availability number.

Obviously the “action” has been in sugar and HFCS, both in the United States and Mexico. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement opened duty and quota free sweetener trade between Mexico and the United States on Jan. 1, 2008, a significant amount of U.S. HFCS production has been exported to Mexico, replaced by a significant increase in U.S. imports of sugar from Mexico. There currently is an antidumping and countervailing duty case filed by U.S. sugar producers against the Mexican sugar industry under review by the U.S. government. Decisions in that case are expected in late August and may have major ramifications for corn sweeteners.

While sugar producers and corn refiners “fight” for market share both in the United States and Mexico, the “battle” against both also is gaining momentum. Mexico implemented a “fat” tax on sweetened sodas and high-calorie snacks on Jan. 1, 2014. (So far there has been little evidence of any impact from that tax, other than to raise funds for the government, which many saw as the goal.) It would appear a number of groups and some in the government in the U.S. would like to take similar actions in an effort to reduce sweetener consumption. Sugar producers want to make sure it’s a fair fight.

The U.S. sweetener industry (corn and sugar) and food manufacturers who use sweeteners long have touted the best approach is one of consumer-led moderation, not government-based taxes or activist-oriented “scare” tactics. At a minimum, sweetener consumption and related health concerns are complicated and likely not settled with a tax, law suits or advertising campaigns.

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