How did sugar become a topic of concern for the entire European Union?

Sugar crisis in the EU

Despite the fact that neonicotinoids have been banned in France and Europe since 2018, the government has granted temporary exemptions for the use of two of these insecticides in 2021: imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The exceptions that allowed the use of pesticide-treated seeds were intended to protect sugar beet crops from widespread aphid infestations. However, as a result of a decision by the European Union’s Court of Justice on January 19, this year, these exemptions in sugar beet cultivation were terminated.

According to forecasts, there will be a critical shortage situation leading to dramatic economic consequences, such as factory closures and job losses, when sugar supplies fall to an extremely low level somewhere in September. Sugar prices are on average 61% higher in the EU than they were a year ago. French farmers have already restricted themselves from growing sugar beet due to the ceased use of neonicotinoids. It was predicted that if other such active substances keep disappearing, sugar beetroot farming will be difficult in many regions of Europe. The European Commission must come up with an agricultural strategy that allows the sustainable production of regional foods and guarantees supply security for European citizens. Due to poor harvests caused by droughts, Europe is becoming increasingly reliant on sugar imports.

Production prospects in other important sugar-producing countries, such as India, Thailand, and China, are also deteriorating. This might cause the introduction of new limits for sugar exports from India. However, the Brazilian sugarcane harvest can provide some relief from the steep surge in sugar prices, but only if there is no increase in the mandatory blend of ethanol content in gasoline. The situation is ultimately preparing the world to look for sugar alternatives that can provide sweetness and other properties similar to sugar.

The situation has now become even more critical following the release of recent WHO guidelines that suggest restricting the use of non-sugar sweeteners (NSS) such as aspartame, saccharin, stevia, sucralose, and others for weight control or other non-communicable diseases. According to the WHO, these NSS can have undesirable effects on long-term usage. While fighting with the present sugar scarcity, the best options consumers look at are non-sugar sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, etc.). But after the guidelines from WHO, it will be interesting to see how small or large-scale players tackle this problem. There must definitely be an expansion or new launches of sugar substitutes that are not artificial sweeteners. One such sugar substitute can be soluble dietary fibres, which can provide health benefits besides their sugar-replacing properties. This category can include a wide variety of ingredients inclusive of polydextrose, inulin, corn soluble fibre, acacia gum, etc.

But as the sweetness of these fibres is comparatively lower (10-70%) than sugar, they can only replace a part of the sugar in the food product. It will be interesting to work on the blend of different soluble fibres or the blend of soluble fibres and artificial sweeteners to maintain both the organoleptic and nutritional quality of the product.

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