“One of the first things someone told me when I started was that consumption of sugar always grows because people will always want to eat candy, cake and sweets. And so far it seems to be one of those things, throughout our culture, that people do continue to consume sugar, and I don’t see that stopping,” Benjamin Fessler, a market analyst with C. Czarnikow Sugar Inc., told attendees at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Washington, DC, late last month.
In response to a question from Don Phillips, a trade advisor for the American Sugar Alliance, about the potential impact on sugar consumption of the sugar taxes that “are being proposed in just about every since country in the world,” Fessler acknowledged that sales of sugar “might hit a hole, and might not see the per capita growth” it has in some past years, but, he added, “overall, the consumption trend will continue to follow the population growth.”
He added the only time this has not been the case is when economic crisis strikes, such as in India and Venezuela, and then taxes can force consumers to change their habits, at least temporarily.
Will demand for clean labels help or hurt sugar?
Cristophe Armero, the director of international business and strategy at Beta San Miguel in Mexico, agreed that sugar will stand its ground with help from other macro trends, including the clean label movement.
He noted that while “there are all kinds of threats” to sugar consumption, “ultimately if you are going to make something sweet, you are going to make it with sugar.”
He explained that consumer demand for 'clean' ingredients, has actually helped sugar as manufacturers have reformulated products to remove high fructose corn syrup. Likewise, he notes, consumers “don’t want chemicals in their products, like sucralose and aspartame or anything else that comes along.”
Even natural high intensity sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit so far have had only a “minor” impact on sugar consumption, he said.
Ultimately, he said, while sugar taxes and public health efforts to reduce sugar pose a threat to the industry, “I wouldn’t panic just yet.”
Does the sugar industry need to take a stand?
But not everyone is as confident that sugar will weather this storm unscathed without industry efforts to protect it.
“What is going on in the US with the tax on sugar [in multiple states], the new [Nutrition Facts] labeling that will put ‘added sugar’ in super huge letters, this could spill over” to other countries, and “become a threat for our industry as a whole,” Leticia Phillips, North America representative for the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, said at the conference.
For support, she pointed to recent headlines in the mainstream press that claim sugar is harmful to mental health, position it as dangerous and call attention to over-consumption compared to World Health Organisation recommendations.
“We are seeing a full attack on sugar, and that is quite a huge challenge to our industry and our mills in Brazil, as I am sure it is in your industries as well,” she told conference attendees.
For its part, the trade group has launched “a full fledge campaign in Brazil to really clarify some of the myths” around sugar, and to explain the role it can play in a balanced diet, she said.
She advocated that “we as an industry need to keep a very strong guard on this issue, and hold hands and work together.”