Goodbye, milk—hello, added sugar!

As usual, my readers are raising interesting questions in the comments section (thanks, guys! You’re awesome). In response to my post yesterday highlighting how our food portions have changed (as in, exploded) over the past 20 years, commenter AEK said, “It would be interesting to note how much added sugar was in the foods at both measurement periods.” It’s a point I’ve frequently considered myself, so I decided to do some digging.

As it turns out—and you might guess—our consumption of added sugars has increased over the years. (Note that added sugars are defined as white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, crystal dextrose, saccharin, and aspartame—I had no idea there were so many!—that are eaten separately or used as ingredients in processed or prepared foods.) In a study published in August in Nutrients, researchers at the University of Connecticut, Ansan College in Korea, and Michigan State University analyzed data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) I and III, comparing what subjects said they had eaten over the past 24 hours in 1971-1975 with what subjects said they had eaten over the past 24 hours in 1988-1994.

Granted, these data aren’t particularly up-to-date, but nevertheless the findings suggest a trend that is probably continuing today. As the authors note, “compared with NHANES I, the mean dietary intake levels in NHANES III were greater for total energy intake (+144 kcal d−1; +7%), total sugar intake (+10 g d−1; +8%), intake of added sugars, (+9 g d−1; +12%), and total carbohydrate intake (+40 g d−1; +18%).” In other words: we ate more junk food in the 90s. Surprise!

Interestingly, though, the results differed significantly by age. People under 18 actually ate three percent fewer calories in 1988-1994 than they did in 1971-1975, but their consumption of added sugars still jumped by five percent.  People over 19, on the other hand, ate 11 percent more calories in 1994, and their added sugar consumption skyrocketed by 18 percent.

Perhaps my favorite part of the study is the researchers’ analysis of exactly what people ate in 1971 versus 1994. The biggest change: people stopped drinking so much milk, replacing the calories in part with grains and carbonated beverages. The paper explains,

The most salient feature of the changes in food items contributing to total energy intake is the rise of “mixtures of mainly grain” from relatively insignificant to the most significant contributor in both age subgroups. This food item includes mixtures having a grain product as a main ingredient, such as burritos, tacos, pizza, egg rolls, quiche, spaghetti with sauce, rice and pasta mixtures; frozen meals in which the main course is a grain mixture; noodle and rice soups; and baby-food macaroni and spaghetti mixtures.

I’m speculating here, but the bye-bye-milk trend may help explain why kids consumed more in the 70s than they did in 90s—after all, a few glasses of milk a day add up to quite a few calories. Today, I’m guessing the anti-milk trend is continuing—how many people under the age of 10 drink milk (and no, McDonald’s milkshakes don’t count)? I’m guessing not a lot, but I’m also guessing that by now, we’ve found some pretty efficient ways to make up the calories. And then some.


Ock K. Chun, Chin E. Chung , Ying Wang, Andrea Padgitt, Won O. Song (2010). Changes in Intakes of Total and Added Sugar and their Contribution to Energy Intake in the U.S. Nutrients, 2, 834-854 : 10.3390/nu2080834

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3 Responses to Goodbye, milk—hello, added sugar!

  1. aek says:

    Thanks for investigating my question!

    These findings lead me to more:

    The increase in grains ingestion – how does that time period correlate with the increased incidence of gluten intolerance?

    The increase in carbonated beverages – does this correlate with the inclusion of HFCS in #processed foods and also with its rates of ingestion in the US?

    And does the increase of grains and non-milk sweetened beverages time frame correlate with the increase in T2 diabetes?

    Being the antique that I am, I grew up without a single fast food source until my last year in high school. Our household treated carbonated beverages, cakes, candy, cookies, etc. as desserts and special occasion treats. That limited the frequency of ingestion, if not always the serving size (grin).

    But I wonder if coaching people to follow that sort of modeling might not help limit undesirable effects (insulin resistance, obesity, glucose and lipid dysregulation) of over ingestion.

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