Saturday, February 18, 2012

By 2606, the US Diet will be 100 Percent Sugar

The US diet has changed dramatically in the last 200 years.  Many of these changes stem from a single factor: the industrialization and commercialization of the American food system.  We've outsourced most of our food preparation, placing it into the hands of professionals whose interests aren't always well aligned with ours.

It's hard to appreciate just how much things have changed, because none of us were alive 200 years ago.  To help illustrate some of these changes, I've been collecting statistics on US diet trends.  Since sugar is the most refined food we eat in quantity, and it's a good marker of processed food consumption, naturally I wanted to get my hands on sugar intake statistics-- but solid numbers going back to the early 19th century are hard to come by!  Of all the diet-related books I've read, I've never seen a graph of year-by-year sugar intake going back more than 100 years.

A gentleman by the name of Jeremy Landen and I eventually tracked down some outstanding statistics from old US Department of Commerce reports and the USDA: continuous yearly sweetener sales from 1822 to 2005, which have appeared in two of my talks but I have never seen graphed anywhere else*.  These numbers represent added sweeteners such as cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and maple syrup, but not naturally occurring sugars in fruit and vegetables.  Behold:

It's a remarkably straight line, increasing steadily from 6.3 pounds per person per year in 1822 to a maximum of 107.7 lb/person/year in 1999.  Wrap your brain around this: in 1822, we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12 ounce can of soda every five days, while today we eat that much sugar every seven hours.  The increase is so steady I was able to fit a line to it rather well (R2 = 0.95):

And using math, I can peer into the future**.  If current trends continue, by 2606 the US diet will be 100 percent sugar!

* The Department of Commerce and USDA report production, not consumption.  To arrive at a reasonable estimate of consumption, I adjusted the whole data set for post-production losses using the USDA's current loss estimate of 28.8%. If we assume that less sugar went to waste in the 1800s because it was a more expensive commodity, this estimate may slightly underestimate sugar intake during that time period. 

** Assuming current average US energy intake of 2,250 kcal/day, as determined by US Centers for Disease Control NHANES surveys.


  1. It won't be 100% if people weigh 500 lbs. ha ha...

  2. [nerd]It will asymptote towards 100% but never get there, as there is always some protein and fat.[/n]

  3. Oh dear.

    The perils of prediction - particularly the naive kind.

  4. I'm reminded of this xkcd comic:

    But what I find interesting is your statement: Refined sugar intake is a marker for processed food intake. Can I extrapolate (heh) then that you don't think refined sugar in and of itself to be a factor in nutritional caused disease (with the exception of increasing reward or replacing other necessary nutrients).

    Could Ray Peat be right?

  5. I see the term "sugar" itself as problematic and open to manipulation: in that there is confusion between what the layperson might consider to be "sugar" and what is "sugar" for the purposes of a nutritional label (or for statistics such as presented here)...

    In nutritional terms "sugar" generally refers only to the simple mono- and di-saccharides like Glucose, Fructose, Table-sugar/Sucrose and HFCS (Glucose + Fructose), Lactose (Galactose + Glucose) etc... When you read the (N. American) nutritional label only these are counted under "Sugar", but if you add up the Sugar + Fibre (Cellulose) you will likely still find yourself short of the Total Carbohydrates. The difference is not listed but is made up of "Starches" which are assumed to be more complex carbohydrate chains than simple sugars but still digestible by humans, and therefor not fibre.

    Check your nutritional label for the list of ingredients and all too frequently you will see refined starches like Maltodextrin.

    Maltodextrin (as one example) is rapidly digested to Glucose and yet it does not count as "sugar".

    Can you see how a savvy food manufacturer might use this to their advantage? Perhaps by replacing some of the "sugar" with refined starches -- still just as sweet, still just as much Blood Glucose effect -- while being able to claim (very loudly) "Now with less added sugar!" I wonder how much of this kind of manipulation is responsible for the apparent reduction in "sugars" since 2005 on the above graph?

    On that same ingredients list (if you can decipher it) you may find more than one type of refined starch, along with several types of sugar, and herein lies yet another "trick of the trade"... the ingredients are listed by weight or volume (greatest to least) so by breaking the "sweetener" into many different ingredients, it can be shuffled and hidden in among the list of polysyllabic-hypehenated-latin-names rather than up front and obvious like it was back in the day when it was just plain sugar.

    You almost need a degree in nutrition to make sense of these labels but as someone who has to test his Blood Glucose (BG) several times a day, I have become acutely aware of the effect that so-called low-sugar foods have on my BG.

    And yet I am not crying "conspiracy" but rather free-marketing as it is allowed within the letter of the law. Anyone who has something to sell wants to make it seem better than their competition's version... even if it is all just an illusion.

    Trouble is when we choose that thing because we have been deceived into thinking it is an healthier choice. But so long as we get to choose, and it's not as if anyone is forcing us to buy this junk after all, are they..?

  6. Wow, that is a long way away .

    Do you think we will be a type III civilization yet, harnessing the power of entire galaxies by then, Stephan?

    My bet is that we will only be Type II by then, if we still exist, and have not destroyed ourselves.

  7. What I find interesting is that the rise in refined sugar consumption does not seem to match the rise in obesity over the same period very well. Most of the obesity rise has been in the last 30 years from what I remember. Obviously there is more to obesity that just eating too much sugar. A graph of vegetable oil consumption might look a little closer to the obesity rate from what I remember. Now you need to plot them all together - sugar consumption, vegetable oil consumption, and obesity rate. Soon we'll be eating only vegetable oil and sugar, if anyone survives :)

  8. An interesting observation about sugar was made 100 years ago during the building of the Panama Canal. Many workers from the sugar-growing Dominican Republic applied to work on it, and they were all tested for diabetes which was known to be very common there.

    Surprisingly, none was found to have it. Further investigation revealed that only the rich Dominicans had diabetes. They ate white sugar, lots of it, while the poor people chewed sugar cane.

    Sugar cane juice is full of the minerals needed for carbohydrate metabolism. Eating the carbohydrate without them is asking for trouble.

    I rather think the food manufacturers who are being accused of causing the obesity epidemic might be interested to hear this. They have been forced to reduce the content of supposed baddies 'fat, salt and sugar' in their products when replacing the white sugar with unrefined sugar is much more to the point.

  9. Back in ye olde days we treated sugar like the Bulgarians treat milk: we fermented our sugar to make it more digestible. We converted our sugar into pancreas-friendly bourbon, beer and hard cider.

  10. Health wise the solution is much simpler than the problem and the discussion; consume no processed food or beverages.

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  12. Sorry, the data was for production and you just relabeled it "consumption?" That seems wrong. Couldn't it just have been that all sugar was imported rather than produced domestically in the 1800s (and indeed, I believe this was the case.)

  13. Production isn't really the best word for it; the USDA actually tracks sales. So these numbers should include imported foods.

  14. And yes, the USDA does consider these numbers to be estimates of consumption.

  15. OK, now lets compare these figures the context of 1820. Was that the common mode of freight in 1820? How many people lived in urban areas? How large were these urban areas? How many people could afford sugar? Were women and slave included in these statistics? It is laughable to pretend this chart represents anything resembling reality. Thumbs up on your silly chart alongside the sugar tax debate... not transparent at all.

  16. I've been reading the memoirs of a conquistador who accompanied cortez in his conquest of the Aztecs. Many of the Indian chiefs they encountered were fat, some extremely so. I presume they did not have much sugar.

  17. Stephan, I´m disappointed. You seem to be a smart guy so I really don´t get why you put HFCS in the same category with white sugar. Your graph is wrong. The sugar consumption went DOWN because HFCS has nothing to do with white sugar (which is ok in a nutrient-dense diet).

  18. 2606? You assume that the United States will still exist as a political entity.

    500 years could possibly bring about an awful lot of changes. Just look at what 150 years brought about.

    The best thing that happened to Europe in regards to nutrition was the black plague. It decreased population size, increased the numbers of fodder eating animals and resulted in the Enlightenment when people were healthier consuming less cereal grains and eating more meat protein.

  19. Thank you so much! Can my student and I share your graph at a Teen Conference? with full credit, of course?

  20. Hi Rachelle,

    Yes of course. Please e-mail me if you would like a high-resolution version. You can find my e-mail address on my profile page.

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  22. but by that time we'll all be living underground or on Mars because of global warming so we may not be able to cultivate all the sugar beets/cane needed. We'll be eating worms or spam.

  23. I wonder if this is being taken a little too seriously?

    It reminded me of the 'fact' that by 2019 one third of the world will be Elvis impersonators!

  24. NHANES says 2,250 kcal/day, and yet the USDA Economic Research Service Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data for 2009 calculates 2,594 kcal/day. Which do you think is more accurate? Is it that the NHANES participants forget to include that daily sweetened soda, or are the USDA ERS calculations not subtracting enough calories?

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  26. Very sick statistics. Eye-opening and hopefully enough to motivate everyone to rethink what they allow in their homes, put into their bodies and feed to their families.
    I think there is a groundswell now and a small but growing awareness that the old food pyramid needs to be turned upside down to some extent. If you can't pick it or kill it, don't eat it. Thanks for the article!

  27. Even though the chart is trending that direction, I just don't see our sugar consumption ever getting nearly that high. It will have to level off at some point because there will be so many people with health problems such as diabetes that it will naturally start go back the other way. Additionally, a certain level of sugar is key to a healthy diet, but I don't see people replacing vegetables with snickers bars at every meal.


  28. Another interesting number is calories/day from sugar (107/365 * 1755 = 480).

    Also, as I recall, Gary Taubes, in Good Calories Bad Calories, uses a much higher number -- more like 150 pounds/year, also adjusted for estimated actual consumption.

    What's the story behind the decrease since 1999?

  29. Your assumptions about consumption versus production over estimates production. It is only post WWII that the waste would only be ~28%. Although there is a massive increase between the 19th and 20th centuries, you can't equate production with consumption.

  30. Thank you Stephan,

    Although I consider this as very worthy subject matter I don't expect people to really fully grok the message. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that many people were not breast fed and instead put on some kind of a "formula" that included sugar. In other words they have been bio-chemically and neurologically wired throughout their most intense developmental years into having a steady intake of sugar as a main stay in their diet. That is only reinforced over the rest of their childhood with virtually all the foods of commerce as nearly everything has sugar as one of the ingredients. About the only way around that is to prepare your own food or scrutinize the ingredients like a detective!

    I have blogged on this topic:
    "The Glories of The Renaissance Were Created With An Average Intake Of One Teaspoon of Sugar Per Head Per Year" and have added a link to here.

  31. Obviously our diets will never be 100% sugar, but this graph and prediction shows just what a jarringly unhealthy road we are traveling on. I blame the naivete of citizens who don't seem to care for their bodies.


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