Eddy Nikolic has a bistro in the western city of Dortmund that is beloved by locals for its homemade cakes: chocolate tarts, lemon cakes, and plum cakes too. In a nation that cherishes cake, Mr. Nikolic’s delicacies stand out for one noteworthy reason: They are all sugar-free, sweetened only with honey.
“I love cake,” Mr. Nikolic said recently at his bistro. “But I don’t need sugar. My body is not a garbage can.”
Mr. Nikolic’s attitude toward sugar reflects a growing trend in Germany. Over the past decade, sugar consumption across the country has declined from 36 kilos (79 pounds) to 32 kilos per person annually as many consumers have become more health conscious. Other sweeteners such as honey, agave syrup and maple syrup have become standard at grocery stores. Increasingly, the perception in Germany – as in other countries across Europe – is that sugar is particularly bad for you, that it not only ruins your teeth, but makes you overweight and sick.
This presents a problem for German sugar producers like Nordzucker, which has €1.7 billion ($200 billion) in annual sales, and its larger rival Südzucker, with €6.5 billion in sales. It’s potentially a problem for farmers too. Germany harvests more sugar beets than all other countries except for France and Russia, with some 28,500 farmers planting the crop.
In many ways, the sugar industry is now threatened with the same kind of pressure that the increasingly-regulated tobacco industry has faced, and it has responded with a similar approach: actively lobbying at home while looking for new, expanding markets abroad.
“The main cause of obesity, secondary diseases, and follow-up costs is the increased consumption of sugar in our society.”
In a sign of the growing anti-sugar sentiment in Germany, at the end of June, 160 people gathered in an office building in Berlin-Mitte for the first ever “sugar reduction summit,” organized by AOK, the country’s largest health insurance company. “The main cause of obesity, secondary diseases, and follow-up costs is the increased consumption of sugar in our society,” AOK CEO Martin Litsch said on the morning of the summit.
One guest at the event was not originally on the invitation list, but attended anyway: Günter Tissen, a lobbyist for the German sugar industry. Mr. Tissen, who was given 20 minutes on stage to make his case, showed a slide of a marble cake and its ingredients: butter, eggs, flour, milk, cocoa and sugar.
“Now you can reduce the sugar content, but if we do not want a smaller cake, we have to increase other ingredients,” he said. Adding more flour, he argued, would result in the same amount of calories as the sugar. Replacing sugar with butter, he went on, would result in even more calories. Sugar reduction, he concluded, leads many consumers to believe they can eat more sugar-free products because they are supposedly healthier. “That leads us to the question,” he said. “Can the claim ‘sugar reduced’ even cause additional damage and lead to even more people becoming overweight?”
Efforts like these are intended to maintain consumption of sugar in Germany despite the fact that the World Health Organization recommends people consume no more than 25 grams of sugar a day. In Germany, daily consumption is still much higher, coming in at 90 grams. That has made sugar the target of German politicians. Recently, Food and Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt, a member of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, presented a “national strategy” for reducing sugar consumption. Foods like yogurt and breakfast cereal, the minister said, should contain less sugar.
Sugar industry officials respond to such declarations with frustration. “Politicians should stop telling people how they should live,” said Hartwig Fuchs, the CEO of Nordzucker. Every week, he said, a different food is demonized, whether it’s red meat, butter or eggs. Mr. Fuchs and others in the industry are increasingly looking abroad to industrializing countries, especially to China and the Middle East, where sugar consumption is increasing. Global sugar consumption, in fact, is growing by 2 percent per year.
The effort to reduce sugar consumption in Germany coincides with another destabilizing force for producers and farmers. In September, EU level quotas and a minimum beet price for sugar production is set to expire. Mr. Fuchs says the expiration of EU quotas will likely result in an initial fall in sugar prices. Yet, he said, it will also give German producers a greater chance to tap into growing markets abroad. “For us, the abolition of the quota is an opportunity to move toward more exporting,” said Mr. Fuchs.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the global appetite for sugar will continue to grow. International food giants that for decades have contributed to the global sugar overdose are now changing tack. Nestlé, for example, wants to reduce sugar in its products by 18,000 metric tons in Europe alone. Its food chemists have been experimenting with ways of reducing the amount of sugar used in its products while maintaining sweetness, for instance, by making sugar molecules that dissolve in people’s mouths faster. “At a time when one in three children are overweight or obese, we need to do more to provide healthier alternatives for these children and to promote active lifestyles,” said Nestlé’s Europe head, Marco Settembre.
If this trend continues, and if more people around the globe begin to think like Mr. Nikolic in Dortmund, it will not bode well for the sugar industry in the long run. Cutting sugar from his diet has only had positive impacts, Mr. Nikolic said. “I noticed how much fitter and more alert I was when I stopped eating sugar.”
This story originally appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org