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Sugar industry promotes Real Sugar amid consumption downturn and popularity of artificial sweeteners

The demonization of “sugar” in general presents both challenges and opportunities for sugarbeet producers, Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, told the ASGA. While the

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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — When studies came out in past decades pointing to a correlation between high fructose corn syrup consumption and obesity, consumers had a dramatic response.

In 2019, per capita annual sugar consumption was 30 pounds less than in 1999, Nicholas Fereday, executive director of Rabobank said during the American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting on Jan. 31. Overall sugar consumption has dropped by 20% in the past 20 years, even as the overall population has grown.

Corn sweetener consumption dropped 37% in that time, and high fructose corn syrup consumption dropped by 42%. Those drops largely have come from declines in the beverage industry, which has dropped about 2% in volume per year for more than 15 years, Fereday said.

Refined sugar consumption actually increased by 3%, but that could not make up for the overall decrease.

“The only safe conclusion we can say … is consumption is on a downward trend,” said Fereday, who joined the meeting by Zoom after East Coast snowstorms prevented him from getting to Arizona.

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A man's face is on a screen in the background, while a group of mostly men watches the screen.
Nicholas Fereday, executive director of Rabobank, said sugar consumption has dropped 20% in the past two decades during his speech at the American Sugarbeet Growers Association's annual meeting on Jan. 31, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Fereday appeared via Zoom because of East Coast snowstorms.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

While that may sound like a public health success story, Fereday said the story is more complicated. Even with the decrease, obesity has continued to grow.

“Somehow, our waistlines did not get the memo on this,” he said.

Obesity, Fereday said, is complicated. And with the big cut in sugar consumption and no cut in weight, consumers may be seeking answers.

“Perhaps it isn’t sugar at the root of this problem,” he said, noting past demonization of other food ingredients including proteins and fats.

A woman in a dark-colored dress and a pink cardigan stands at a podium.
Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, told the American Sugarbeet Growers Association about her organization's Real Sugar campaign, which more closely ties refined sugar to the sugarbeet and sugarcane plants from which it originates. Photo taken Jan. 31, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

The demonization of “sugar” in general presents both challenges and opportunities for sugarbeet producers, Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, told the ASGA. While the challenge of overcoming consumer perceptions remains, the solution and opportunity may be as simple as getting people to see “real sugar” for what it really is — a plant-based substance with a proper place in a balanced diet.

What is sugar?

The ASGA meeting kicked off with a golf tournament and industry receptions on Jan. 30 in Scottsdale. With last year’s meeting held virtually due to COVID-19 precautions, Luther Markwart, ASGA executive vice president, said the in-person event that drew 330 farmers and industry representatives was “just absolutely fabulous.”

“It is fabulous to be back together again,” he said.

Half of the benefit to a live event is in the socialization that occurs outside of the sessions, he said.

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A man in a dark suit, a white shirt and a red tie stands at a podium in front of a green curtain, with the American flag behind him.
Luther Markwart likened the American Sugarbeet Growers Association's annual meeting being held in person after a virtual 2021 meeting to a family reunion. Photo taken Feb. 1, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

“We’re essentially having a family reunion here in the sugar industry,” he said.

And like any family reunion, the good and the bad news facing the family had to be dissected and discussed. On the bad side, supply chain issues and inflation that are causing skyrocketing input costs got a lot of attention, as they have at other farm conferences since early fall. Markwart said the input side is certainly going to impact sugar producers, but the “output” side of the supply chain has been resilient for the sugar industry, which he said has done a “tremendous job of taking care of its customers.”

That decrease in sugar consumption that Fereday talked about also could be seen on the side of bad news for the sugar industry. That is, if you look at “sugar” in general instead of “real sugar.”

Gaine said surveys have shown that when consumers hear “sugar,” they think sweetened beverages, baked goods and other treats.

“Nobody thinks white granulated sugar when they hear ‘sugar,’” she said.

When sugar is connected to its origins — sugarcane or sugarbeets — the perceptions change. The problem there? Few people seem to realize where sugar comes from, Gaine said.

Connecting product to plant

A green tote bag and a gray shirt sit on a table. Both say "Real Sugar."
Spreading the message about "Real Sugar" includes telling the farm to table story of sugar and showing consumers that sugar comes from plants grown on family farms, said Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, the scientific voice of the sugar industry, told the American Sugarbeet Growers Association on Jan. 31, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

The Sugar Association is the scientific voice of the U.S. sugar industry. Its members include cooperatives and companies involved in growing, processing and refining “real sugar” from sugarbeets and sugarcane.

An ongoing problem for the sugar industry has been that people do not see sugar as a natural product, Gaine said. When asked whether “table sugar” was naturally occurring, a quarter of people surveyed thought it was an artificial product and another 21% were unsure of its origins.

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To combat those perceptions, The Sugar Association has produced the “Real Sugar” campaign, with the tagline, “Life is sweet. Keep it balanced.” The campaign has included targeted online marketing, including a commercial that Gaine showed at the ASGA meeting of people purchasing sugarbeets and sugarcane in supermarkets where bags of sugar would be.

“It’s a simple message connecting the plant to the real product,” Gaine said.

And that’s important because surveys showed only 30% of people can identify that sugar comes from plants. When people connect sugar to plants and to farms, they feel more comfortable with including sugar in their diet, she said.

Gaine sees sugarbeet growers as an important part of the education process.

“Right now, consumers are incredibly interested in where their food comes from, and they want to know the people who are making their food,” she said. Farmers staying active on social media, using videos and photos to show their work, their crops and the process of sugar can positively influence consumer opinions. “You only believe something if you see it.”

The campaign has moved the needle on consumer knowledge of sugar’s origins, but Gaine explained the Real Sugar campaign also is educating in other ways, too. The Sugar Association has a curriculum for family and consumer science teachers to use in teaching about sugar’s place in the diet, and the association also has sponsored “influencer tours” that brought food and dietary influencers to sugarbeet and sugar cane fields and refineries to learn about where sugar comes from.

Real versus fake

Read more sugarbeet stories:

The other side of The Sugar Association’s work has been to lobby to get sugar included in the dietary guidelines released in 2020 . The guidelines pegged recommended sugar consumption at 50 grams per day, or 200 calories. That makes consumers feel more comfortable using and consuming sugar when they see that it is considered part of a balanced diet, said Gaine, a dietician.

“We were never really seen as essential before” the 2020 guidelines, she said.

The balanced part is important, Gaine said. She said “balanced” is the preferred terminology, rather than telling people to use sugar in “moderation.” Moderation makes people think the thing they’re consuming is something they shouldn’t have, she said.

The process didn’t end with the 2020 guidelines, she said. Fereday said the momentum to cut sugar will continue, even without evidence that cutting sugar will cut obesity rates. Some groups, including the American Heart Association, feel sugar consumption should have been set at a lower number . But Gaine said studies have shown the healthiest eating patterns include 17 to 50 grams of sugar per day.

The words Real Sugar are on a gray cloth.
The Sugar Association handed out Real Sugar branded t-shirts and kitchen utensils to spouses of members at the American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting on Jan. 31, 2022, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

Markwart said that even though “real sugar” has a better reputation and connotation than other terms and other sweeteners, public misconception requires continuing education and continuing science.

“Grandma used to say, ‘Eat a little bit of everything and go outside and play.’ And that’s frankly what we’re saying, too. And we have to educate the policy makers, the regulators in Washington to say, ‘Look, sugar is all natural, it’s part of a well balanced diet,’” he said.

Along with educating consumers about sugar’s place in the diet, The Sugar Association also is campaigning for more transparency regarding the use of artificial sweeteners. Gaine said a surge in artificial sweeteners has included usage not just in diet products but in products marketed toward children. Consumers don’t always recognize those sweeteners, which can have gastrointestinal effects, because labels can be confusing and misleading, she said; the labels no, low or reduced sugar also can be misleading, as the products can be higher in calories than products that do contain sugar.

The next phase of The Sugar Association’s plan is to educate parents about the hidden sweeteners in food and the role of “real sugar.”

Fereday said sugar reduction will remain big business as companies search for a “holy grail” product that tastes like sugar, can be used like sugar but isn't actually sugar. Those might include new derivatives of sweeteners like stevia or biotechnology solutions.

But the advantage that sugar has is that it’s real, with a story that can be shown and celebrated, Gaine said. But while the push to explain “real” is important right now, it may not last forever, she said.

“Real matters right now. Real versus fake,” she said. “It might not matter in 10 years.”

Related Topics: SUGARBEETSAGRICULTUREFOOD
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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