Is a Sugar Shortage Looming?

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It's often said that Americans are addicted to oil—witness the tizzy that ensued last summer when pump prices topped $4 per gallon in many places. But if there's one substance we're nearly as dependent on, it's sugar—in our treats, in our packaged foods, in our coffee (America may "run on Dunkin'," but not just for the caffeine). So what would happen if we ran out? That's what a group of food companies, including Kraft, General Foods and Hershey, warned could happen soon if the government doesn't allow more sugar imports, in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on August 5.

According to Bloomberg news, damaged crops in India and Brazil are leading to a record two-year shortfall in world sugar production versus global demand—and to record sugar prices.

A lot of people (myself included) might react to the prospect of life without sugar the same way Stephen Colbert did last week on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report: with an extended banshee scream. (He then proceeded to shower himself in a cascade of sugar.) But, his guest, the well-known nutrition professor Marion Nestle (no relation to the Nestlés of Crunch-bar and Toll-House fame), made the case that the shortage is "a manufactured crisis because the food companies want to have cheap sugar from other countries."

At least, she tried to make the case. As she learned (and later explained on her blog at The Atlantic's food site), a fake news show is no place to discuss the issues behind actual news stories. In this instance, those issues include the system of quotas and tariffs the government imposes on imported sugar. Calling U.S. sugar the "single most heavily protected agricultural commodity," Nestle writes that only 15 percent of total sugar in this country is allowed to come from imports. That 15 percent is controlled by quotas distributed among 20 countries, who have to pay high tariffs for anything additional (except for Mexico, because of NAFTA).

Further complicating things is the fact that many food makers are responding to the (unwarranted, according to Nestle) public backlash against high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) by using more cane and beet sugar. At the same time, corn that once was grown for sweeteners is now going to produce ethanol, raising the price of HFCS, too.

But, just as the gas-price freak-out last year forced Americans to, at least temporarily, evaluate their driving habits, a sugar crisis—manufactured or not—might be a good time to look at the amount of sugars in our diets. According to a recent statement from the American Heart Association, "between 1970 and 2005, average annual availability of sugars/added sugars increased by 19%, which added 76 calories to Americans’ average daily energy."  In 2001 to 2004, the usual intake of added sugars for Americans was 22.2 teaspoons, or 355 calories, per day. And that isn't even counting naturally occurring sugars, which the body doesn't distinguish from the white stuff.

Bottom line: regardless of what happens on the world market, most of us could stand a little self-imposed sugar shortage.

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