India, the world’s second-biggest producer of sugar, wants its people to have a sweeter tooth amid a surplus of the saccharine substance.
Sugar mills in the country have launched an online campaign to refine the image of the pantry essential, which has long been accused of being the main culprit behind a string of health problems.
Vivek M Pittie, president of the Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA), the country’s sugar industry body, said sugar was the “victim of misgivings.” The trade group has set up a new website dedicated to all things sugary, offering bite-sized morsels of information that attempt to absolve the sweetener of being a sinful indulgence.
“Much baseless and unsubstantiated information is floating around about sugar. There is absolutely no scientific evidence or any research paper which concludes or establishes that consumption of sugar in itself leads to any particular disease, even like diabetes or dental caries,” said ISMA in a statement launching the knowledge portal.
Under a “Did you know?” section on the homepage, a sticker reads: “Sugar does not make a person gain weight. Consuming too many calories is what causes a person to gain weight, regardless of where the calories are found.” Another tab sifts through the many health claims against the sweet stuff to separate fact from fiction, and in one article, artificial sweeteners are scrutinized with questions like “Sugar-free, but at what cost?” and “Are they really safe?”
“[It’s an] important initiative taken to bust myths on sugar and spread the right awareness around sugar. The problem with misinformation is that it travels faster [than truth]. But people need to take informed decisions about food and nutrition,” said India’s Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey in the statement.
ISMA said it is planning to set the record straight by organizing workshops and enlisting the help of medical professionals, from endocrinologists to nutritionists and dietitians, to sweeten the deal.
India, as a country, goes through more sugar than any other nation in the world, but its annual per capita consumption, which for years has stood at 19 kilograms, is lower than the global average of around 23 kilograms. Between 2000 and 2016, the per head consumption of sugar in the South Asian country grew at a paltry 1.25 percent a year.
The pandemic this year soured sugar consumption as lockdown measures impacted industrial demand, which makes up 60 percent of India’s total. Regulations to stem the spread of the virus forced food service establishments to shutter their doors and factories making soft drinks, biscuits and other confectioneries to temporarily switch off production lines.
But even in any other year, domestic demand can’t keep up with production, which is propped up by pro-farmer policies that incentivize sugarcane cultivation. The result has been an overabundance of sugar on the market that has depressed domestic prices and pushed mills into debt, unable to pay growers their dues.
The government has turned its sights to international markets to reduce its surplus stocks, starting since 2018 to offer export subsidies despite objection from other sugar-producing countries like Australia and Brazil. Last year, New Delhi earmarked some $870 million in financial aid for mills to ship six million tonnes of sugar abroad during the 2019/20 season, which spans from October to September the following year. The subsidy has been extended until December 2020, but there won’t be any tangible benefits for exports who have largely met their quota, having sold a record 5.65 million tonnes since October 1 last year.
The 2020/2021 marketing year might be less palatable for Indian sugar makers as authorities seem to be wavering over whether to unleash more assistance for a third year. Last Friday, Indian Food and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said an extension of incentives is off the table for the moment. “Sugar [export] subsidy is currently not under consideration because international prices are stable. If there is any requirement, the government will examine it at an appropriate time,” Goyal told a virtual press conference, according to The Financial Express newspaper.
Sugar mills had been expecting another round of government aid to help their shipments, especially amid estimates that production could climb up by 13 percent in the upcoming season.
One way India is using the excess sugar is by turning it into ethanol, a transportation fuel. The country already has plans to amp up production of the biofuel as it tries to increase ethanol-gasoline blend rates to 10 percent by 2022. However, Padney, the food secretary, has other ideas.
Bloomberg quoted the official as saying that if yearly individual intake in India reaches the global average, domestic demand could swell by 5.2 million tons a year. This would dissolve sugar exports and in turn ease hefty subsidies – a real treat for policymakers.