I was looking for information about sugar consumption in America compared to Germany, and I came across this graph. Even if the data in the graph is correct, there’s something very wrong with the conclusion “Sugar clearly not the culprit.” Can you identify the error in the argument?
The graph above shows consumption of only *white* sugar, i.e. sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets. But when we speak of sugar consumption going up, we’re usually speaking of sugar from all refined sources, not just from white sugar. In fact, the reason that white sugar consumption in America was dropping from 1970 to 1986 was that high-fructose corn syrup consumption was increasing, by a closely corresponding amount (as shown below). Hence, pounds of total caloric sweeteners remained relatively flat between 1970 and 1980. Since 1985 white sugar consumption has held relatively steady, but corn syrup consumption has continued to increase, going up about 20 pounds between 1980 and 1998. Since 1998 total sweetener consumption has dropped slightly, as shown in the graph below.
Below is another graph showing the same data, but notice how by starting the y-axis at 120 rather than at 0, they are able to make the same change look much more dramatic. By ending the graph in 1999 rather than in 2005 they also de-emphasize the recent small but statistically significant drop in total sugar intake (which probably occurred because of the popularity of low-carb diets).
You’ll also see comparative data that suggest that American sugar consumption is not particularly high from a global perspective, as this graph seems to indicate.
But when you convert the U.S. value of what looks like about 29 kg to pounds (about 63), it becomes clear that this graph is showing consumption of only white sugar. And whereas in the rest of the world centifrugal sugar (from cane sugar or beets) is the primary sweetener, accounting for over 92 percent of all caloric sweeteners consumed, in the U.S. (according to the USDA) high fructose corn syrup accounts for roughly 38% of all caloric (nutritive) sweeteners consumed (ref). So clearly this graph is misleading if we want to talk about total refined sugar consumption.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find any data on German total sugar consumption. According to this page annual centrifugal sugar consumption per person in Germany in 2008 was 34.2 kg of sugar. If we assume that this accounts for 92% of all sugar intake then total sugar intake in Germany in 2008 was around 82 pounds, compared to 132 pounds of total sweeteners per year in the U.S. in 2010. If these numbers are accurate it means Americans are taking in over 50% more sugar per year than Germans.
Here’s some older data on “Entwicklung des Zuckerverbrauchs in Deutschland”. According to this page the per capita sugar consumption in Germany has held for a long time at about 35 kilograms per year, near the European average. The European leaders include the former Soviet Union and Switzerland, each of whom take in about 42 kilograms per year / person. Relatively little sugar is consumed in Turkey, where people take in on average only 25 kilograms per year. Cuba takes in about 57 kilograms per year per person, whereas Brazil and Israel take in about 54 kg.
For a broader historical perspective it’s interesting to consider how sugar consumption in Britain has changed since 1700. In the book “Private tooth decay as public economic virtue” by Ralph Austin and Woodruff Smith they report sugar consumption in Britain of 4.6 pounds in 1700 and of 16.2 pounds per capita in 1770. The Wikipedia “History of Sugar” page says that average sugar consumption in Britain rose from four pounds per head in 1700 to about eighteen pounds in 1800, thirty-six pounds by 1850 and over one hundred pounds by the twentieth century. Here’s a graph showing a similar trend.
One last bit of info: In 2003, four United Nations agencies, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), commissioned a report compiled by a panel of 30 international experts. It stated that the total of free sugars (all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices) should not account for more than ten percent of the energy intake of a healthy diet. If your typical diet has 2000-2500 calories, then that’s equivalent to about 40-50 pounds of sugar a year, which is much less than even the German intake. But note that this amount has to be reduced by the amount of free sugars consumed in other sweeteners like honey, syrups, or fruit juices, so it’s even less than it seems.