Grrrreat! Is America's sweet tooth finally being tamed?

6:13 AM, Jun 3, 2013   |    comments
Sharon Casertano, unloading groceries in her kitchen, says she strives to keep sugar to a minimum in her family's diet. (Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
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(USATODAY.com) - Matthew Casertano has never had a Coke. Or a Pepsi. Or even a root beer.

There was one occasion at summer camp when the then-dehydrated 8-year-old - with no other beverage option available - took one swig of a Sprite and says he almost vomited. "I managed to swallow it down, but I hated it," recalls the third-grader from North Potomac, Md. "I threw the rest away." Casertano says he doesn't want to ever sip another sugary soda again.

Not too many years ago, in a nation mostly raised on sugary treats and sweetened drinks, such stories of kids rejecting sweets would have been met with skepticism - if not derision. But America's sweet tooth is finally being tamed - at least, a bit.

In a nation obsessed with weight loss and healthier eating habits, children are eating far fewer sugary sweets than they did 15 years ago, according to data crunched exclusively for USA TODAY by the research specialist NPD Group. The numbers are eye-popping and the change - which is already impacting the country's biggest makers and sellers of all things sweet - appears irreversible because the decline is only accelerating.

The typical child ate or drank the 20 most common sugary sweets an average 126 times fewer last year than in 1998, reports NPD. That includes 62 fewer occasions of having carbonated soft drinks and 22 fewer times eating pre-sweetened cereals.

These NPD numbers are based on daily eating diaries kept by 5,000 people living in 2,000 households nationally.

Although NPD does not formally define "sweets," the 20 items in the study were selected based on what is generally accepted as sweet. The Port Washington, N.Y.-based global, independent market research firm has continuously tracked and studied the eating and drinking habits of Americans for three decades. More than 90% of all major food and beverage makers use NPD data.

Trailing behind our own kids - but also seriously reducing sweets consumption - adults indulged in an average 49 fewer sweet occasions last year vs. 15 years ago. Across almost every category of pre-sweetened foods - except yogurt and fruit snacks - children, in particular, are consuming fewer sweets.

Among the hardest-hit categories: carbonated soft drinks, pre-sweetened cereals and fruit drinks and juices - all seeing double-digit declines in annual servings by the nation's youngsters, reports the NPD study.

"It's a big deal," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University who has long been a critic of many of America's biggest food and beverage makers. "We know rates of obesity have leveled off for most groups, and everybody is waiting to see if this holds or not."

Even then, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children ages 6 to 11 in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents ages 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period.

That's why first lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her chief cause and why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also has embraced the obesity cause, even trying - but failing - to cap a lid on soft drink sizes sold in New York City.

Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD, says the shift in consumer eating away from sugary sweets is unmistakable and not just some short-term trend. "No matter how slick the ads are on Madison Avenue, they can't go against consumer behavior," he says. "You can almost cross a line and say: Mission accomplished."

Well, not quite, he admits.

Children still consume considerably more sweets than do adults - 14% more annually - according to the NPD data, with 617 "sweet" eatings/drinkings for children vs. 543 for adults. And 98% of adults and children still have at least one of the 20 "sweet" products at least once every two weeks. But the numbers clearly are heading south. That, Balzer says, is primarily because parents are fighting back - and making a dent in the eating habits of their kids.

To this day, no soft drinks are allowed in the Casertano family's Maryland home. "I'm against sugaring-up kids," says Sharon Casertano, a government general contracting specialist, who, besides, Matthew, has a second son, Nick, who is 10.

"When my kids go on a play date I say, 'Please, do not give my kids sugary snacks,' " Casertano says.

While that still may be a cultural exception, it's no longer an oddity. The numbers have been slowly but steadily declining for a decade and a half, and nutritionists say it's no small accomplishment.

The decline is "quite significant," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has battled the big food and beverage makers for decades. But he worries that many folks are replacing sweet treats with salty, fatty, made-with-white-flour snacks like pizza or cheeseburgers.

Fifteen years from now, these sugary-treat-consumption numbers will plummet even more in the U.S. as it becomes normal for schools to ban junk food and for the government to tax sugary soft drinks, says Kelly Brownell, professor of psychology and public health at Yale University. "But once these companies have squeezed every ounce they can out of America, they'll turn their attention to the developing world and sell their worst products there."

Major food and beverage makers concede some of the changes - and note they are responding to them with expanded product lines.

Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling says, "Consumption trends have evolved because there are considerably more beverage choices compared to 15 years ago." PepsiCo spokesman Jeff Dahncke notes, "We moved to become a total beverage company 20-plus years ago and have built a highly diverse portfolio. Kellogg's president of Kellogg Morning Foods, David Denhold, says that cereal remains American's "No. 1" breakfast choice, though the company recognizes that "preferences are changing" and it is launching cereal and non-cereal products with less sugar. But sales of pre-sweetened cereal are "growing" over the past 52 weeks for key General Mills brands, spokeswoman Kirstie Foster says.

Clearly, our sweet tooth is not gone. We are simply turning to sweets less frequently.

"We still have a sweet tooth," Balzer says. "We just don't satisfy it as often."

That's particularly true for kids. NPD reported these shifts in behavior for children younger than 18, last year vs. in 1998:

• Drank fruit juices 16 fewer times than in 1998.

• Ate cookies eight fewer times than they did 15 years ago.

• Ate ice cream seven fewer times than in 1998.

• Ate cake five fewer times than 15 years ago.

Not that some sweets aren't on the increase. Yogurt consumption, for example, is way up. Kids ate yogurt on 23 more occasions in 2012 than in 1998. And they ate fruit rolls four more times last year than they did 15 years ago.

But overall, children are reducing sweets consumption at a faster rate than grown-ups. "Parents are clearly controlling the amount of sweets their kids are eating," Balzer says.

Parents like Charlene Florian.

Before she had kids, her favorite treat was a Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream cone. Florian hasn't just mostly cut out ice cream. Since her 8- and 9-year-old daughters were born, she has eliminated virtually all refined sugars from her diet and her family's. When her kids do eat sweets, it's usually things sweetened with honey or unrefined maple sugar.

Little wonder neither daughter has ever had a cavity: no refined sugar.

"I will never let it come in the house," says the skin care business owner who lives in Newport Beach, Calif. "If they decide to eat it when they're older, that's up to them. But they both accept that as long as they live at home, they won't have sweets."

She makes occasional exceptions - outside the house. And when she makes those special treat trips to Häagen-Dazs with the kids - and they get the cookies-and-cream ice cream - she forbids toppings.

As for those sweet treats that her kids bring home from birthday parties or on Halloween, "I'll eventually toss them in the trash, and they won't even notice."

Sometimes it's nutritionists, themselves, who have the hardest time deciding just how much processed sugar to let inside the front door.

Several decades ago, when Farzana Kapadia grew up, her favorite cereal was Froot Loops. But she's now an assistant professor of public health at New York University and has an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

She allows some sugary treats in her home, but not many. "We live in the real world and can't pretend we don't," she says. "I'm not a health food purist."

In fact, she loves a Coke now and then. No, she won't bring it into the house. But at work, she sometimes drinks full-sugared Coca-Cola.

"I have friends and colleagues who start the day with a can of Coke," she says.

But sugary cereals are a no-no. While she outlaws most heavily sugared cereals from the house, she lets her kids eat whole-grain Cheerios - usually with fresh fruit on the side.

She's angry at the big food and beverage makers who market sugary treats to kids. "You just can't look at our kids as a market to conquer, but that's what they do," she says.

Kapadia celebrates the small victories.

Several years ago, when her son, Moiz, was about 4, Grandma tried to give him a piece of chocolate. "Oh, no, Grandma," she overhead him say. "I don't like this."

Although Kapadia sometimes questions her own nutritional strictness with her kids, after hearing her son bawl out his candy-toting Grandma, she recalls, in a rare moment of nutritional victory, very quietly uttering one word to herself: "Yes!"

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