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CARD: Center for Agricultural and Rural Development

Winter 2005, Vol. 11 No. 1

pdf for printing U.S. Sweetener Consumption Trends and Dietary Guidelines

Helen H. Jensen

John C. Beghin

The United States is the fourth-largest producer of sugar and has well-developed sugarcane and sugar beet industries. However, since the 1970s, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has gained popularity with food processors as a sweetener, a change stimulated by sugar agricultural policies that have raised the price of sugar well above its world level, and the emergence of cheaper sweeteners based on corn. Nearly 7.3 percent of total corn production (2.2 million bushels) was used to produce HFCS in 2003/04. The United States is the world's lowest-cost producer of HFCS, partly because of access to cheap corn at or below world market prices and low unit costs in large plants. HFCS represents an increasing share of per capita caloric sweeteners delivered for domestic food and beverage use.

Table 1
Table 1 shows the radical changes that have occurred over time in the level and composition of U.S. sweetener consumption. Total caloric sweetener consumption increased 33 percent from the 1960-69 to 2000 average level. HFCS use increased by 1,060 percent, and total sugar consumption dropped by 33 percent. Since 2000, these trends have tapered, and U.S. sweetener consumption seems to have peaked. Food-processing industries and food retailers have initiated these changes in the sweetener composition of food and many consumers obviously like them.

Table 2
The beverage industry is by far the largest user of HFCS, as shown in Table 2. Canned, bottled, and frozen foods industry is the second-largest user. Added sugars include refined sugar, HFCS, edible syrups, and honey not naturally occurring in food but mostly added in food processing. By 2000, per capita consumption of added sugar among Americans was 31 teaspoons per person per day. The relatively high amount of added sugars is attributed to increased consumption of foods with added sucrose or HFCS. Soft drinks and fruit drinks contribute almost 43 percent of total intake of added sweeteners. Often the caloric sweeteners are "hidden" in prepared foods, making it difficult for consumers to determine the exact amount of added sweetener in food items in the short run. In the long run, consumers can observe the health consequences of their dietary intake. The scientific literature has associated the intake of high sweetener levels with increased risk of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Sugar and foods containing sugars and starches can also result in tooth decay.
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend choosing foods that limit the intake of added sugars; balancing caloric intake from foods and beverages with physical activity; and choosing and preparing foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners. Evidence suggests a positive association between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain, and that reduced intake of added sweeteners (especially sugar-sweetened beverages) may be helpful in improving the quality of diets and in weight control. Limiting intake of added sweeteners will lead to major changes in consumption and have implications for the agricultural sweetener sector. The U.S. Congress and some state legislatures are considering bans on soft drink sales in schools and other restrictions and food standards to curb sweetener and high-energy food consumption because of the rising cost of obesity among children and the general population. CARD economists (Helen Jensen, John Beghin, and Amani Elobeid) are currently analyzing the impact of such policies on U.S. sweetener and agricultural markets.