Surprise: American Sugar Consumption Is on the Decline

We eat badly, yeah, but it's a welcome change to hear we're getting (slightly) healthier.

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It seems there’s always a new reminder of Americans’ poor eating habits. Michelle Obama today  introduced a proposal aimed at limiting the advertising of junk food to children in schools. And earlier this month, researchers alerted us that our massive sugar intakes are going to kill us all.

So it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that things are on the upswing. According to food availability data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans’ estimated consumption of sweeteners is nearly 14 percent lower than it was at its peak in 1999, when the average American consumed nearly 422 calories per day in sugar and other sweeteners.

According to one expert, the decline is a promising sign.

“There was a period of time in the field where it just felt like depressing news after depressing news,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “It just felt like we were losing this battle. Now I feel like things are turning around.”

Schwartz, who was in Washington for the first lady’s announcement, says she thinks fewer soft drinks in schools may have helped.

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None of which is to say we’re all that healthy. The American Heart Association recommends that most women get no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, and that men get no more than 150, meaning the average American is eating far more than twice or even three times his or her daily healthy intake. Furthermore, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2012, some children (we’re looking at you, teenage boys) consumed 442 calories per day in added sugars per day from 2005-2008.

Those figures are still alarmingly high, Schwartz says.

“It's a little bit like only having a foot and a half of snow instead of 2 feet of snow. It's still not really good news,” she says.

While a mix of factors is likely behind the decline in sugar consumption, one might be Poland Spring. The USDA in 2013 posited that increasing use of unsweetened beverage substitutes, like bottled water, could be one factor in pulling down sugar.