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Do we eat more sugar now than we used to?

The debate may give the impression that we are eating more sugar than we used to, but statistics show otherwise. Although it varies from country to country, overall we are not eating more sugar.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the supply of sugar to EU countries has remained relatively stable over the past forty years (EU average of 36 kg sugar available for consumption per person/year – not intake). Please see figures for selected countries below. 

By comparison, national dietary surveys reports lower figures. However, meaningful data measuring the actual sugar(s) “intake” is difficult to obtain. First of all, the availability of such data varies a lot among EU countries. Where intake data exists, it is limited by the fact that there is no standardised method for collecting intake data across Europe.

Various intake figures are not comparable due to the use of different data sources and methodologies across countries. Dietary surveys also have high levels of misreporting.

A review looking at dietary surveys from 13 countries in the developed world shows the development in dietary intake of sugar from the latest national surveys of dietary intake. The authors conclude that performing comparisons is complicated, since the definitions of dietary sugars are highly variable. Generally it was found that dietary sugar intake was either stable or decreasing, with increases seen only in certain subpopulations. 

(link to study by Newens and Walton).

The actual national sugar intake is assumingly higher than the figures reported in national dietary surveys (due to underreporting), but lower than the average national sugar supply, because wastage accounts for a large proportion of the supply statistics and consumption.

Looking at the average figures, it is important to remember that consumption is not evenly distributed across the population. Some groups, especially among children and young people, have a higher sugar intake than others.

There are two methods for calculating sugar intake.

The first method is to use supply statistics (gross)

This method looks at how much sugar is available to industry and households, and hence to consumers. The starting point is a country’s production of sugar, adjusted for imports and exports, either directly or as sugar content in end products. The result is divided by the number of citizens and produces the amount of sugar that is available for consumption to each consumer. The disadvantage of this method is that it does not take wastage into account, i.e. all the food products and food leftovers that are thrown away by shops, restaurants and private homes. Some surveys suggest that up to 20–30% of our food goes to waste. This means that the actual intake will usually be less than that shown by the supply statistics. Sugar supply figures broken down by country can be found here. Read more Choose “Food Balance”, “Food Supply – Crops Primary Equivalent” and then choose “Country”, “Element” Food Supply Quantity (kg/capita/year), Item “Sugar, Refined Equivalent”. 

The second method is dietary surveys (net)

In this method, selected individuals are asked what they have eaten during the course of, for example, a week. The disadvantage of this type of survey is that people – consciously or unconsciously – state that they have eaten less than their actual intake of sweets and cakes. It is therefore likely that the actual intake of sugar is higher than the dietary surveys indicate. Dietary surveys are carried out by national food authorities.

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