GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Only 30% of U.S. consumers know sugar comes from plants, which indicates both the challenge and opportunity facing the U.S. sugar industry, Courtney Gaine said.

"The consumer environment is very conflicted," though there's reason for optimism, said Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association in Washington, D.C., which represents both the sugar beet and sugar cane industries.

She spoke in Grand Forks on March 10 on the first day of the two-day annual International Sugarbeet Institute. About 3,000 to 4,000 people were expected to attend the Sugarbeet Institute, which draws attendees from across the country and Canada. The latter helps to explain the "International" in the show's name.

There's been a 30% decline in consumption of added sugars in the United States over the past 15 years, with virtually all of the decline due to a drop in soda consumption, Gaine said.

Added sugars are sugars and syrups — the list includes honey and molasses — that are added to foods and beverages when they are processed or prepared..

The decline brings overall U.S. caloric consumption of sugar close to the federal guideline of 10% (no more than 10% of a person's total daily calories should come from sugars), a trend that often is not communicated to the public, Gaine said.

In 1998, Americans averaged 54 gallons of soda consumption per person annually. Sixteen years later, that had shrunk to about 38 gallons — roughly a 30% decline, Gaine said.

The sugar industry hasn't felt that decline because soft drinks are sweetened mainly with high-fructose corn syrup, she said.

Currently, soft drinks account for about 39 percent of added sugar consumption, with snacks and sweets accounting for 31 percent. Many other categories account for the remaining 30 percent.

Very little consumption of added sugars come from foods such as dairy, salad dressing and ketchup and other condiments. "You hear so much in the news about how much added sugars you're getting in foods you didn't even know have sugar" — a claim that's contrary to what's actually the case, Gaine said.

"When you really look at it, there's not much added sugars coming from other foods," she said.

Even so, Gaines said, there's still strong pressure on Americans to cut their sugar consumption. For example, a recent New York Times article was headlined, "Make 2020 the Year of Less Sugar."

On the other hand, consumers overall are increasingly interested in so-called "clean eating," Gaine said. "Consumers want to know what the ingredients in their food are. Sugar is positioned very well in the clean-eating trend."

Helping consumers to realize that real sugar comes from plants, and thus can be part of the clean-eating trend, will benefit the sugar industry, she said.

"Yes, consumers are looking to reduce their added sugars. But when it comes to sweeteners, I believe consumers are going to be seeking out real sugar," rather than sugar substitutes, she said.

The Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota is a major sugar beet growing region. The annual Sugarbeet Institute rotates between the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, in the northern Red River Valley, and the Fargdome in Fargo, N.D., 75 miles south of Grand Forks.

The area's sugar beet industry wants sugar to be a responsible part of a healthy diet. "And we want to continue being good stewards, good producers," said Mohamed Khan, Extension sugar beet specialist for both North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota and an organizer of the Sugarbeet Institute.