Sugar: Obesity Villain or Has-Been?

Don’t look now, but consumer power may be accomplishing what activists like Bloomberg could not do by themselves — a real reduction in sugar consumption. Two recent analyses suggest that consumers are turning away from sugary foods for both adults and children.

USA Today and the NPD Group report this week that consumption of almost every category of sweetened foods is down over the last 15 years for both children and adults, with the greatest decline seen in children. The only exceptions are sweetened yogurt and fruit snacks, which sneak under the radar of many consumers because of a healthy halo they wear.

Sugary sodas, sweetened cereals, fruit drinks, and juices are the hardest hit with double-digit declines. These numbers are consistent with the big picture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA estimates that total calories consumed from added sweeteners show an overall decline  of 2% in per capita consumption between 2002 and 2012.

Consistent with these trends, new data from the California Health Interview Survey shows a decline in sugar-sweetened beverages by children. Between 2003 and 2009, the percentage of children 2-5 drinking them declined from 40% to 16%. Among children 6-11, it dropped from 54% to 33%. The study was just published in Academic Pediatrics.

Activists, like Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at NYU, take note of these trends, saying, “It’s a big deal. We know rates of obesity have leveled off for most groups, and everybody is waiting to see if this holds or not.”

Harry Balzer of NPD says the shift away from sugary foods is an unmistakable long-term trend, unlikely to be reversed. “No matter how slick the ads are on Madison Avenue, they can’t go against consumer behavior.”

Food and beverage companies are responding to these shifting preferences by expanding their product offerings. Says a Pepsi spokesman, “”We moved to become a total beverage company 20-plus years ago and have built a highly diverse portfolio.”

Longtime food policy activist Kelly Brownell sees the trend accelerating in the U.S. as it becomes normal for schools to ban junk food. But he cautions, “Once these companies have squeezed every ounce they can out of America, they’ll turn their attention to the developing world and sell their worst products there.”

Perhaps a dose of realism is the appropriate response. As Jane Brody pointed out recently, sugar has been, at most, a minor contributor to the rise of obesity in America. When you get right down to it, the picture is complex and trying to focus on a single villain is at best misleading and quite arguably, dishonest.

Click here to read more in USA Today, here to read more in Medical Daily, here to read more in the New York Times, and here to read the study in Academic Pediatrics.

Glowing Gumdrops, photograph © stevehdc / flickr

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