Sugar Awareness Week

The lobby group Action on Sugar has been promoting Sugar Awareness Week on their @actiononsugar Twitter feed. One post, below, caught my attention.

It is difficult to estimate how much sugar billions of people across the world are really consuming. On a country basis you can take production plus imports minus exports, but you don’t know how much sugar has been wasted, or added to or subtracted from stocks. It is even harder on a global basis where cross-border sugar trade flows can be difficult to track.

Having said that, the figures above look a bit off. The UN’s FAO estimates world sugar consumption in 1987 at 102 million tonnes. That year  world population reached 5 billion people, which equates to a per capita sugar consumption of 20.4 kilos . Thirty years later, the world’s population has reached 7.6 billion people and world sugar consumption has topped 180 million tonnes. So using the FAO’s figures that equates to a per capita sugar consumption of 24 kilos per person, an increase of 18 percent over thirty years.

Possably as a result of the group’s lobbying efforts, two of Europe’s leading magazines featured sugar on their covers this week. France’s Le Point promised to tell readers “The Truth About Sugar” while Germany’s Focus wanted to inform their readers of the difference between “good” sugars that come in the form of natural products, and “evil” sugars that the food industry adds to their processed products.

As part of Le Point’s crusade for the truth the magazine included a graphic that showed that per capita sugar consumption had risen from 16 kilos per person in 1960 to 25.5 kilos in 2016. Unlike the statistics on Action for Sugar’s Twitter feed, these figures are more or less correct. World sugar production in 1960 stood at 55 million tons while world population stood at 3 billion people, which gives a per capita consumption of 18 kilos. As for 2016, the FAO’s per capita figure is 24 kilos, but that is close enough.

What Le Point fails to point out is that if you exclude the low-income countries of China, India and Pakistan the average global per capita sugar consumption hasn’t changed from what it was in 1960 – 25 kilos per head. Per capita sugar consumption in the USA in 1960 was around 55 kilos per head.

At the recent Platts-Kingsman Conference (no longer anything to do with me) in Miami, the American Sugar Alliance, a pro-sugar lobby group, presented the following graph showing US sugar consumption correlated against US obesity rates.  As you can see, obesity rates have been rising while sugar consumption has fallen.

If you add in high fructose corn sweeteners, the picture changes somewhat, but not dramatically.

In their presentation the ASA highlighted the fact that Americans are consuming 374 more calories per day now than they were 34 years ago. The following graph breaks down where those extra calories are coming from.

Going back to Le Point, the magazine published the following graphic in their anti-sugar piece. It purports to show a correlation between world sugar production and obesity. The correlations look impressive, but they would have looked less impressive if they had taken the increase in population into account.

All this prompted me to revisit one of my favourite websites where I managed to produce the following graphic. It clearly shows how the decline in per capita consumption of corn sweeteners in the US has resulted in a reduction in the number of pedestrians killed by motor vehicles. So that at least is good news.

It is not clear who first coined the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In his book “The Persuaders – The Hidden Industry that wants to change your mind“, the author James Garvey explains that the practice of public relations is “rarely intended to inform the population about the intricacies of an issue and is more often calculated to circumvent critical thinking.

Well said!

Author: Jonathan

After 37 years as a commodity trader and analyst, Jonathan Kingsman is now chairman of Bonsucro, a non-for-profit organisation that promotes environmental sustainability and human rights within the sugarcane sector. Jonathan is married with four grown up children and lives in Lausanne Switzerland. He is the Editor of The Sugar Trading Manual and author of The Sugar Casino. Godstone is his first novel.

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