Friday 7 November 2014

Calorie consumption revisited (no. 3): Sugar

Keith Vaz, who has signed up to the anti-sugar crusade, recently wrote an article in The Spectator in which he said:

“People are simply not aware of how much sugar they are eating, and most of us do not fully recognise the devastating effect it is having on our bodies. It is the main cause of the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is plaguing Britain, where our annual sugar intake is 33.7kg per capita. That is 15.4kg higher than the global average — we are the 18th largest consumer of sugar in the world.”

In August, I published a report with the IEA that showed evidence that sugar consumption has been declining for at least twenty years. So, if Vaz's figure of 33.7kg per capita is roughly correct (and it seems to be), how does it compare with previous generations? Because sugar is hidden in all our food and is causing an unprecedented epidemic of diabetes and obesity, right?

A good source of data is Sidney Mintz's classic 1986 book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. He found figures for per capita consumption in the UK which span 1700 to 1985.

On page 67, he lists the following figures for 1700-1809. I have added the kilogram equivalents.

1700-09: 4 lbs (1.8kg)

1720-29: 8 lbs (3.6 kg)

1780-89: 12 lbs (5.4 kg)

1800-09: 18 lbs (8.2 kg)

Although consumption doubled a couple of times in the above period, per capita consumption remained low by modern standards. It was only in the Victorian era that sugar really hit the mass market. "As early as 1856," Mintz writes, "sugar consumption was forty times higher than it had been only 150 years earlier, though population had not much more than trebled during that period."

On page 143, he writes that "in 1901 the per-capita figure for the first time rose above ninety pounds." That is 41 kg—substantially more than we consume today.

Sugar consumption declined during both world wars and seems to have hit a modern low during the Second World War before going on to reach new heights. "In England," Mintz writes on page 198, "sugar consumption [between 1938 and 1969] increased from a low of around 70 pounds (1942) to about 115 pounds; and one authority set the per-capita figure at 125 pounds for 1975."

These figures equate to 32 kg, 52 kg and 57 kg respectively. In other words, the 33.7 kg figure that Keith Vaz thinks is shocking is only slightly more than the amount that was consumed in the midst of the Second World War when rationing was in place.

Mintz later writes that sugar consumption was "levelling off at around 105 pounds per person per year only in the past decade [1976-86]". This is 48 kg. His figures then naturally dry up, but we can seek further information from an unlikely source.

Regular readers may recall that I was on Channel 4 News in August trying to explain that sugar consumption has been in decline. Aseem Malhotra and Mike Lean were lined up to explain that I was wrong because naa-naa-na-naa-na I can't hear you.

So it is slightly ironic that the Channel 4 News website had previously published this:

In the last 30 years or so, sugar consumption crept back down. During that period, it was highest in 1982, when Britons were eating around 42 kilos of refined sugar per head per year, but it fell by 10 per cent, or around 4 kilos, during 1980 to 2000.

Yet, though we are taking less sugar in our tea or coffee, and sprinkle less over our cereals, we are consuming more sugar because people are eating more processed foods. So many people do not actually know how much sugar they are eating.

We still eat around 0.56 kilos of sugar a week - around 30 kilos a year. Meanwhile the amount of sugar we eat has gone down in children, but less so in adults.

OK, you need to ignore the middle sentence which contradicts the other two (it also contains a link that does not show that we are 'consuming more sugar' at all. It's just another Channel 4 News webpage about sugar taxes). But the difference between 1982's figure of 42 kg and 30 kg is large—a 25 per cent drop—and is in line with what the survey data show in The Fat Lie.

We should probably give all these figures a margin of error of about 5 kg either way, but it seems very clear that sugar consumption in Britain today is lower than it was in 1900 and lower than it has been at any time since the 1960s (if not earlier).

So, if consuming 33.7 kg of sugar each year is "the main cause of the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is plaguing Britain", why didn't it plague Britain a hundred, fifty or thirty years ago?


Christopher Snowdon said...

33.7 kg is a surprisingly large amount. Although I'm always mildly taken aback at how often I fill my sugar jar (not actually that often, but it's quite a large jar). My wife uses those sweetener pill things, so it's only me using it. Coffee in the morning and usually in the afternoon and a couple of cups tea during the day - two spoons of sugar in every cup - it adds up. I hardly ever eat processed / pre-prepared food, though. Is wine a source? I drink plenty of that! :) But 33.7kg? that seems an awful lot. What I put in my coffee and tea would probably only add up to 7 - 10 kg (calculated guess) or less. Is there really so much sugar in other foods?

Christopher Snowdon said...

That works out at 92.3g per day. I see that if you type into Google: "sugar content of fruit", you get drop-down menus of different fruits and various sizes/weights.

For example, a medium-sized apple contains 19g of sugar and ten grapes 8g. If you are getting your "5 a day" from fruit, you would be well on your way to 92g.

I suppose the average teaspoonful of sugar for tea and coffee weighs around 5g, so I would say that an average of 3¼ ounces of sugar a day from all sources is nothing to worry about, especially if it has been much higher in the past.

Next question: what is really causing the obesity and diabetes 'epidemics'?

BTW, if your wife's sweeteners contain aspartame, ironically that's known for causing weight gain (and dozens of other complications/diseases).

I don't know, but the blame-sugar-for-everything (sounds familiar) could be a way to get us taking lesss sugar and more dangerous additives which could be the real cause of the upsurge in obesity, diabetes, cancers, autism, etc., etc.

Christopher Snowdon said...

Nothing "causes" weight gain. Weight gain happens when your calorie input is higher than the output. People can live on almost any food, we are omnivores. It is possible to eat only sugar or fat (at least for a few days) and .. lose weight. Mathematics.