WASHINGTON — Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten products from Coca-Cola to Heinz ketchup and linked to obesity, is falling in the United States as health-conscious consumers drink less soda.
The amount of corn devoted to the sweetener this year will fall to its lowest level since 1997, according to a Jan. 15 projection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"A lot of attention has been paid to obesity, and that's hurt high-fructose corn syrup," said Marion Nestle, a public-health and nutrition expert at New York University. "Now, if only people weren't making up for it by eating more sugar."
For decades, corn syrup benefited from the relatively low cost of corn compared with sugar. A tripling of corn costs since 2004 has lessened that advantage, while consumer obesity concerns and negative publicity have also reduced demand, said Lauren Bandy, an ingredients analyst with Euromonitor International in London.
Americans consumed an average of 131 calories of the corn sweetener each day in 2011, down 16 percent since 2007, according to the most recent USDA data. Meanwhile, consumption of sugar, also blamed for weight gain, rose 8.8 percent to 185 calories daily, the data show.
Even with the increase in sugar use, total U.S. sweetener production remains down 14 percent from a 1999 peak, according to the USDA.
"We're seeing a real decline, and that people aren't just switching to sugar," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "People consume way too much of both."
He attributes the decline to public-health campaigns.
Concerns that obesity is rising have spurred anti-sweetener measures, including proposals in 30 states to levy soda taxes on the $74 billion U.S. soft drink industry. Last September, New York City's Board of Health voted to restrict sales of sugary soft drinks to no more than 16 ounces a cup in restaurants, movie theaters and stadiums, acting on a proposal by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Soft drinks are the major driver of high-fructose corn syrup use. Consumption, which peaked in 1998 at 54 gallons a person, plummeted 21 percent by 2011, as Americans drank more juice, tea and bottled water, according to Beverage Digest.
Ties to obesity are scaring some consumers away even as trade groups for corn syrup and sugar battle each other in court over allegedly false statements about each other's products, said Nestle, the New York University nutritionist.
"It's laughable, seeing them fighting one another when they're both awful," Nestle said.
Fructose may contribute to weight gain and obesity because of the way it affects brain regions that control appetite, Yale University researchers found in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this month.
The Food and Drug Administration has classified high-fructose corn syrup, a blend of fructose and glucose, as safe. It declined to call it "corn sugar," as requested by the Corn Refiners Association.