Nutritionists and consumer groups have reportedly criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for reducing its per capita sugar consumption estimate from approximately 100 pounds per year to 76.7 pounds per year. According to an October 26, 2012, New York Times article, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) Executive Director Michael Jacobson “stumbled across” the agency’s latest assessment “while working on a project on sugar consumption.” Lowering the previous benchmark by 20 percent, the revised numbers apparently raised red flags with Jacobson, who suggested that the methodology used by USDA researchers was “built on a foundation of sand.”

“The new estimate is still relying heavily on experts making what seem to me to be largely guesses,” he told Times reporter Stephanie Strom. “Other than the 4 percent they’re getting [from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey], what do they really know for certain?”

In particular, Strom questioned the sugar sector’s hold on USDA policy, citing emails obtained by CSPI through a Freedom of Information request in which industry representatives allegedly “discussed the benefits of the lower estimate and how they might persuade the USDA to make a change that would reduce it even more.” But the scientists responsible for the data have since countered that the numbers reflect an agency-wide effort to better account for “consumer-level food-loss estimates,” which aim to capture “how much of various sweetener-laden foods that consumers buy is actually eaten, versus how much is thrown away.”

Meanwhile, New York University Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle has faulted USDA for failing to adequately track sugar consumption trends over time. “Food availability figures also indicate declines, but suggest that Americans have access to about 65 pounds a year each of table sugar and corn syrup for more than 130 pounds per year total,” writes Nestle on her Food Politics blog, pointing to recent reports issued by USDA’s Economic Research Service. “None of these figures is precise. But if the methods for calculation are the same every year, trends should be discernible. Adjusting for waste introduces new sources of error and makes trends impossible to determine.” See Food Politics, October 30, 2012.