Sugar Consumption in Australia - A Statistical Update

October 04, 2012 at 4:00 PM

Executive Summary

This paper clarifies some issues surrounding sugar consumption statistics in Australia. In the past few years, claims that sugar consumption is rising rapidly have been argued vigorously from opposing viewpoints. One major problem for anyone looking closely at the issue – from policy makers, industry, health professionals and others – is that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) ceased publishing their “Apparent Consumption of Foodstuffs” data in 1998/99. This publication was the best government-collated data on foodstuffs consumption. Now, regulatory issues regarding food consumption are often debated and decided without independent ABS data to rely on.

In the absence of ABS collating such data, the Australian Sugar Refiners and CANEGROWERS[1] have commissioned an independent analysis by Green Pool Commodity Specialists (Green Pool) to publish an updated set of statistics on sugar consumption in Australia using ABS methodology, and to make a detailed assessment of the underlying data and trends. The main findings of this study are as follows:

  • The long-term trend for sugar consumption per capita in Australia is down. This report uses an updated ABS data series (original 1938-1998, updated 1999-2011), using the ABS methodology (the “ABS extended series”).
  • Sugar consumption per capita has fallen from 57 kg/capita in 1951 to around 42 kg/capita in 2011. There is some variability around the trend line, for which causal factors are suggested.
  • The ABS extended data series is a more robust and accurate series than any current alternative. In particular, data derived from Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)[2] is shown to be seriously deficient, and ABARES’ own analysts admit it is a poor measure of consumption.
  • Regression analysis[3] shows that a downtrend line explains 52.66% of the variability in the ABS (extended) dataset from 1970 to 2011– an adequate result for a time series over 41 years. Conversely, an uptrend line explains less than 1% of the variability in the ABARES data series, due to the enormous volatility in the dataset.
  • The ABS extended series captures several important factors that ABARES’ data does not. The ABS series measures sales by domestic refiners to all direct users and manufacturers in Australia. It also incorporates sugar imports into Australia, which ABARES does not. Additionally, the ABS extended series measures the sugar content of imports and exports of manufactured goods including blended food ingredients. Blends represent an important export product, and a factor substantially distorting alternative measures of Australian sugar consumption. ABARES did not intend its total production less exports data to be used to measure consumption – and in fact published data similar to the ABS series in a 1991 paper.
  • Exports from Australia of food preparations rose sharply in the 1990s, peaking in 1996-2002, but have since fallen. A sizeable portion of these exports were to Japan to “bust” high Japanese tariffs on imported sugar (and consequently avoid high Japanese sugar prices). The strong Australian currency has now reduced blend exports from Australia.
  • Whereas Australia has been a net exporter of sugar in sugar-containing products (peaking at close to 150,000 mt of sugar in products in 2002), it is now a net importer of sugar in sugar-containing products (of 22,000 mt of sugar in products in 2011). Australian food manufacturers have lost competitiveness against overseas producers, and some manufactures have moved off-shore.
  • Claims that there is widespread proliferation of fructose in foods (in place of sucrose) could not be verified. While no compositional data for fructose in food imports was readily available from ABS, no production of fructose (powdered or as high fructose corn syrup) in Australia could be verified. This is very different to the USA, where fructose is a mainstream food ingredient. ABS import data shows only 3,000 tonnes per annum (or 0.13 kg/capita) of fructose imported into Australia in 2011 for all purposes, and at least some of this is re-exported in food preparation blends to Japan.

The longer-term down trend and the shorter-term 10.34% reduction in adjusted per capita sugar consumption in Australia, from a peak of 46.26 kg in 2004 to 41.97 kg in 2011, may be due to a number of factors. The most important are likely to be increasing global sugar prices and dietary changes, which may have contributed to increased use of intense sweeteners (Equal, Sucralose etc.) and reduced usage of sugar in both the household and in manufactured goods. Further examination of these issues in more detailed dietary studies may help to clarify such trends.

The fact that no Australian government agency currently collates and publishes apparent consumption data for products including sugar is regrettable. It leaves a void for industry, which will always be open to accusations of attempting to portray data trends to its advantage. Green Pool’s report is an independent expert report, and it is intended that this report be published in an appropriate economics or health economics journal and be subject to normal publication scrutiny.

To read the full report, please click on the link below: 

[1] CANEGROWERS is the peak body for Australian sugarcane growers

[2] ABARES is a research organisation within the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

[3] Regression Analysis is used to fit a line showing trend to a dataset, and quote a standard statistic – the R-squared or R2 – to show how well that trend line “fits” the data. R-squared values range from 0 to 1 (or 0 to 100%).