We’re get­ting smart about sugar

Woonsocket Call - - OPINION - By JUSTIN FOX Fox is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist cov­er­ing busi­ness. He was the ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor of Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view and wrote for Time, For­tune and Amer­i­can Banker. He is the au­thor of “The Myth of the Ra­tio­nal Mar­ket.”

Bloomberg Opin­ion

Per-capita con­sump­tion of sugar and other caloric sweet­en­ers was down in the U.S. in 2017 for the third straight year – and 13th out of the past 18. And this time, con­sump­tion of re­fined sugar, which had been ris­ing over the past decade as con­sumers (and soft-drink mak­ers) turned away from high-fruc­tose corn sweet­en­ers, fell as well.

The 2017 num­bers, which the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture re­leased a few weeks ago but haven’t got­ten much at­ten­tion yet, aren’t re­ally big news in the sense that they over­turn an es­tab­lished nar­ra­tive. There had al­ready been talk of a global “sugar glut” brought on by boom­ing pro­duc­tion in Asia, ebbing de­mand in de­vel­oped coun­tries, and slow­ing de­mand growth in emerg­ing mar­kets. It’s also clear that the de­cline in over­all sweet­ener use in the U.S. be­gan a while ago (I’ve writ­ten about it be­fore) and has ac­tu­ally slowed some­what in re­cent years.

Still, it is con­tin­u­ing to de­cline, which strikes me as a great vic­tory in this age of dis­trust of sci­en­tific knowl­edge and wide­spread sen­ti­ment that ev­ery­thing is get­ting worse. Added sugar, broadly de­fined (that is, in­clud­ing corn syrup and the lot), is prob­a­bly bad for you in any­thing but quite small doses. Yes, there have been other foods de­scribed by ex­perts as bad over the past 50 years (fat and eggs spring to mind) that have turned out not to be, but – while there do seem to be con­cerns that treat­ing sugar in iso­la­tion is misleading – the ev­i­dence link­ing high sugar con­sump­tion to obe­sity and a range of other mal­adies is pretty over­whelm­ing. And whad­dya know: Peo­ple have been re­spond­ing by … eat­ing less sugar.

Ob­vi­ously it’s not all the re­sult of in­di­vid­u­als read­ing or hear­ing about the health risks of sugar and choos­ing to forego it. A few cities have pe­nal­ized sugar con­sump­tion with soft-drink taxes, while some food man­u­fac­tur­ers have re­for­mu­lated prod­ucts to use less of the stuff. We may see many more such moves be­fore 2020, when new Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion rules – de­layed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion but ap­par­ently given the go-ahead this year – re­quire food la­bels to in­clude in­for­ma­tion on added sug­ars.

Sugar con­sump­tion also varies by re­gion and by so­cioe­co­nomic group. The con­sump­tion of sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages is high­est in the South, re­ports the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, and is also higher among low-in­come Amer­i­cans. On the other hand, a 2016 study found that the de­cline in sugar con­sump­tion since the early 2000s has crossed so­cioe­co­nomic lines.

U.S. sugar con­sump­tion does still have an aw­fully long way to fall. As of 2013, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent data from the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions, the U.S. led the world in per-capita sugar con­sump­tion (Malta and Switzer­land came in sec­ond and third). The Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion’s cur­rent rec­om­mended daily added sugar limit is 36 grams for men and 25 for women. The per-capita 2017 num­bers re­ported by the USDA come out to al­most 159 grams a day.

The agency does not ac­tu­ally mon­i­tor how much sugar we put in our bod­ies; it mea­sures “es­ti­mated de­liv­er­ies for do­mes­tic food and bev­er­age use” and di­vides it by the pop­u­la­tion. But sur­veys in which peo­ple are asked about their sugar con­sump­tion show sim­i­lar trends. Those trends are headed in the right di­rec­tion, and let us for the mo­ment just be thank­ful for that.

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