The Inconvenient Truth about Sugar Consumption (it’s not what you think)

May 1, 2014


The rise in obesity is a problem. And it is being blamed on a rise in the consumption of sugar. However, while global sugar consumption is rising in aggregate, in the developed total world sugar consumption has been surprisingly stable.

Statistically this means there is an inverse correlation between per capita sugar consumption in aggregate and obesity per head of population. That’s the Inconvenient Truth.

The Economics of Sugar Consumption

  • The world economy has more than doubled since 2000. With rising affluence, consumption of all foods, including sugar, has risen.
  • However, Czarnikow analysis shows that demand for sugar becomes increasingly inelastic as incomes rise. Once basic needs are met, consumers become relatively indifferent towards sugar.
  • In fact, the highest levels of per capita sugar consumption do not coincide with the highest levels of income.

While obesity per head of population increases, sugar consumption per head is actually falling

Sugar and the Affluent Society

  • The analysis of per capita consumption thus contradicts the view that greater disposable income in developed countries drives increased sugar consumption.
  • Our statistics show that processed foods and indirectly consumed sugar are instead displacing sugar that was previously consumed directly.
  • Today, only 20% of sugar usage is in table-top form.

Historic Trends in Sugar

  • 150 years ago the UK was the centre of global trade in sugar and the largest importer of sugar, operating around 100 small scale refineries.
  • The 1920s also saw the development of the beet industry with 20 beet factories built in that decade.
  • However, today the beet industry has shrunk to just 4 beet factories, while the last UK refinery operates in London, following the closure of the Greenock refinery in 1997.
  • Czarnikow consumption records show that the principal growth in UK consumption occurred in the Victorian era.
  • The rise in UK per capita sugar consumption to today’s 35kg/head took place over 100 years ago.
  • After disruptions during the two World Wars, UK sugar consumption per capita peaked in the post-war period and is now in decline.
  • While obesity per head of population increases sugar consumption per head is actually falling.
  • Consequently the focus on sugar is detracting from addressing the real problem, which is much more complex.

In working life the practise of taking tea woth sugar was institutionalised with the ‘tea break’

The American Experience

  • The debate over sugar consumption in the US has damaged HFCS consumption in particular, as consumers have shifted away from soft drinks towards other alternatives.
  • CDC and national health survey data show that obesity prevalence has grown from around 15% in the late 1970’s to over 35% today, coinciding with the growth in sweetener consumption that began in the 80s.
  • However, since 2000 US sweetener consumption has fallen, while obesity prevalence has continued to rise from around 31% to over 35%.
  • Similar trends can be seen in other countries. In Australia obesity prevalence has risen by around 7% between 1995 and 2012, while per capita sugar consumption has fallen by around 17%.

Toby Cohen, Head of Analysis

“By looking through old records and pulling together data on how UK sugar consumption has changed we get to the statistical truth – obesity has increased as sugar consumption per capita has fallen: That’s the Inconvenient Truth. We need to think about the holistic factors that determine our health and focusing on the sugar we eat does nothing to change this.”


  • The rise in obesity is a problem for the world today. However, this is not due to rising sugar consumption.
  • Data shows how we as consumers in the developed world are actually consuming less sugar than before.
  • Behaviour has changed and the amount of sugar that we buy for domestic use today is just 30% of that of our grandparents’ generation.
  • We are consuming more sugar indirectly but this reflects the food that we can buy today and we are consuming more food overall.
  • Our lives are better but we are working more, are more exposed to stress and on average are doing less exercise.

UK per capita sugar consumption is now falling

Source: Czarnikow, F O Licht, ISO, Board of Trade Journal

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