by Marion Nestle
Oct 30 2012

Is USDA changing its sugar consumption estimates? Why?

If I weren’t so concerned about USDA’s dropping its data on calories in the food supply (see previous post), I might not have become so alarmed about the New York Times report on the sudden drop in estimates of sugar consumption.

USDA provides data on amounts reported as consumed, from 1970 to 2011.

These have declined, not necessarily because people are eating less but because USDA changed its methods.

According to the Times account:

In e-mails the center obtained through a Freedom of Information request, officials at sugar industry trade groups discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the U.S.D.A. to make a change that would reduce it even more.

“We perceive it to be in our interest to see as low a per-capita sweetener consumption estimate as possible,” Jack Roney, director of economics and policy analysis at the American Sugar Alliance, wrote in an e-mail on March 30, 2011.

These figures are for reported intake—always an underestimate.

Reported intake is much lower than amounts of sugars available for consumption—amounts produced, less exports, plus imports—always an overestimate (the truth lies somewhere in between).

Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total.

None of these figures is precise.  But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible.

Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.

The USDA used to re-correct the entire food availability series when making changes in methods.  Why aren’t its data collectors doing that now?

We neeed USDA to be keeping up with food availability data.  What to do?

  • I have never paid much attention to the number of pounds of sugar consumed. I’ve heard from “experts” that the number is 115, 130, and 180. The number is too easy to manipulate.

    The bottomline is we consume a lot of sugar. As one example, if you drink one soda per day, you will be consuming 32-pounds of sugar per year. That’s a lot of sugar from just one source.

    To visualize that, take a look …

  • C A Kelver

    That would mean we eat 1/3 lb of sugar per day. I just don’t buy it.

  • Dan Kallem

    No, C A, that would actually calculate out to less than 1/10 of a pound of sugar per day, using Mr. Leebow’s 32-pound per annum figure.

    Perhaps you–like many, many Americans–should first work on your math skills a bit, before you “buy” anything…

  • Abe

    No, Dan, C A appears to be referring to the 130 lbs per year figure, which would equal 1/3 lb of sugar per day.

    Maybe before disparaging other people’s math skills, you should work on improving your understanding of context…

  • It’s not really that hard to believe. There are:
    4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon
    113.5 teaspoons in a pound
    37.83 teaspoons in a third of a pound…

    A 20 ounce soda (as proven by the reaction in NYC, is considered by many Americans to be one serving) contains approximately 15 teaspoons. How many people do you know that consume more than one? Two would get you almost there.

    A slice of white bread (the kind typically eaten by Americans) easily contains approx 3 teaspoons of sugar. Average sandwich without even touching the sugary sauces can be 6 teaspoons in the bread alone.

    Is 1/3 of a pound really that hard to believe as an average?

  • Michael

    Abe: 130 lb/year = 162 grams/day. One 20 oz regular soda has 56 g sugar; two of those a day and a bowl of most breakfast cereals:

    … and you’re most of the way there. Many coffee and tea beverages have similar levels of sugar: eg, 53 g in a Starbucks Grande Dulce de Leche Frappuccino Blended Creme, and 81 g in a Grande No-Whip Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino Blended Crème. And the thing is, there’s sugar in nearly everything processed these days. Eg., the average American gets even more sugar from breads than s/he does from cereal:

    … like, say, the 26 g in a Starbucks Walnut Bran Muffin, the 10-13 g in nearly all chains’ bagels, etc. And most restaurant food these days is loaded with the stuff, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways.