Sweet ‘16


Thinking about healthy habits in the new year? January has no shortage of health-related news items, so just to get the ball rolling I’m going to share an item from a British newspaper, an item that surely applies as much to Saipan as it does to the Atlantic.

The items comes via Jan. 4 article in the (U.K.) Telegraph: “Children aged 5 eating own weight in sugar each year as parents urged to check products with free app.”

Well, apps, or no apps, it’s not only British kids who are on the sugar express, of course. It’s just a part of modern life.

I was curious about how much sugar Americans consume. What we call “sugar” is a broad term, as it turns out, and the sweeteners tallied include cane and beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, and dextrose.

Here’s some good data from a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, “Sugar and Sweeteners Outlook,” dated June 18, 2014: “On a per capita basis, U.S. sweetener deliveries for 2013 were 128.3 pounds, down 1.0 pounds from 2012 and 20.6 pounds from the 149.0 pounds in 2000.”

On an older report I saw that per capita U.S. sugar consumption rose from 1950 through 2000, but then, as the above quote indicates, there’s been a fall from 2000 to 2013.

Anyway, since we’re all familiar with the standard heft of 5-pound bags of sugar, they make convenient benchmarks. So we can note that, on average, Americans consume the equivalent of a 5-pound bag every two weeks.

Seen in those terms, that seems like a lot of sugar to me.

If you want to get really detailed about it, you can shave the data down by accounting for things like spoilage that drive a wedge between sugar that is sold for consumption and sugar that is actually ingested. So “consumption” to an economist, and to a public health expert, would probably have different meanings here, as the economist considers the transaction, but the health expert would be more concerned about the actual ingestion.

Of course, for most of us, the important thing isn’t fancy data about national averages, but is, instead, how much of the stuff we’re shoveling into our yappers. It’s not an easy thing to know. Sugar has a knack for sneaking in over the transom.

Here’s an example of how sneaky it can be: When I was in college, the standard dash-to-class breakfast was two small containers of yogurt and a large glass of orange juice. I’ll note that eggs, butter, and fat (such as bacon has) were considered big no-no’s at the time. So this was a case where convenience and conventional wisdom seemed magically aligned.

Like all magic, of course, there was an illusion at work. During one of my annual and random looks at labels, I eventually realized that my “healthy” quasi-breakfast carried a payload of 85 grams of sugar.

A gram doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t picture it. So I’ll revert to my 5-pound bag benchmark and note that a daily dose of 85 grams of sugar adds up to more than one of those bags every month. The tally is 5.6 pounds in 30 days. Wow.

Meanwhile, since college, it seems that attitudes toward eggs, butter, and bacon-fat have softened, at least in some circles, while sugar seems to get sharper scrutiny across the board.

Of course, I’m no health expert, I’m just a slob trying to get by in life without being too stupid about things. When it comes to sugar, then, over the decades I’ve eased toward giving it a bit of a look instead of a blank check.

When I’m bored and don’t have any money to buy lottery tickets, I’ll reach for my calculator to put fuzzy things (“grams per serving”) into more meaningful terms (“5-pound bags per month”). Yep, the little things sure do add up, and the results carry some heft when they’re put in familiar terms.

I try to swing by this subject once a year or so in this space. It’s an issue that deserves regular scrutiny. After all, Saipan and sugar have a long history together, both on the production, and on the consumption, sides of the equation.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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