The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently said Americans were consuming less sugar than in the past, now taking in about 76.7 pounds per year. While that sounds like a lot, it’s close to 25 pounds less per person than the previous estimate, which was around 100 pounds per year, according to The New York Times.
These new numbers would be exciting news on the health front if they meant we were finally starting to curb our national sweet tooth. But more likely, they are an accounting sleight of hand.
Sugar consumption estimates are loosely based on expert guesses of how much of the various sweetener-laden foods bought are actually eaten, versus how much are thrown away. For example, the old estimates assumed that 20% of pumpkins purchased are tossed before being eaten; the new estimates put that number closer to 70%.
A report that accompanied the changes concludes that most pumpkins wind up as decorations rather than as an ingredient for pies or puddings.
Registered dietitian Mary Hartley says these the new sugar consumption numbers are nothing to cheer about and they really don’t change anything. But they do matter.
Why? Because the government has begun to set legal limits on high-sugar foods as part of the effort to fight obesity. If food companies can make a compelling argument that we purchase a lot of sugary foods, but we don’t consume a lot of what we buy, regulations such as the ban on large-sized sodas in New York City might be a lot harder to pass.
“The American Sugar Alliance seems to agree that perception is everything,” Hartley says. She notes that the sugar industry trade group lobbied hard for the authors of the report to lower their approximations even further.
However, Hartley doesn’t think the public or politicians should be fooled.
“It’s just the bean-counters refining their formulas,” she notes. “Americans still eat far too much sugar.”
Hartley has a point. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men. (The average intake is closer to 350 calories per day.)
So decorative pumpkins notwithstanding, most Americans eat 2 to 3 times the amount of the sweet stuff as they should. And that’s a fact even if you accept the newly adjusted figures as gospel.