Commentary

Study Attacking Sugar Studies Attacked Over Industry Funding

A research study published Monday that suggests sugar may not be quite as bad for you as you’ve been hearing from a host of other studies is itself under attack, primarily because it was funded by — you guessed it — the sugar industry and food companies that add it to their processed foods.

“Guidelines on dietary sugar published over the past 20 years do not meet the criteria for trustworthy recommendations for reasons that include low-quality evidence and inconsistent advice, say the authors of a new review published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine,” reports Marcia Frellick for Medscape.

“Jennifer Erickson, RD, from the University of Minnesota in St. Pauland colleagues say their literature search unturned nine sets of guidelines issued between 1995 and 2016 that offered 12 recommendations, seven of which were qualitative and five of which were quantitative, that ranged from advising that less than 5% to less than 25% of total calories should be from ‘nonintrinsic’ sugars per day,” Frellick writes.

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And they all “scored poorly” against established research standards — “specifically in rigor of development, applicability, and editorial independence,” the authors claim.

“‘Overall, I would say the guidelines are not trustworthy, says study co-author Bradley Johnston, a clinical epidemiologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto who also teaches biostatistics.

Johnston reviewed the studies and methodology used to generate the guidelines. He concludes that while it's wise for people to limit sugar consumption, there's still a question about how much to limit,” reports NPR’s Allison Aubrey.

“‘Sugar should certainly be limited in the diets of children and adults, no question,’ he says. But he argues there's not convincing evidence to support cutting consumption to 10%, or 5% — or any specific threshold.”

Time’s Alexandra Sifferlin reminds us that “the most recent U.S. dietary guidelines recommend Americans get less than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars — which is roughly the equivalent of a 16-ounce soda. The World Health Organization has issued similar guidelines, while other groups say 25% of total calories should be the cap.”

While we’re on the subject of trustworthy, however, “the review was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, a scientific group that is based in Washington, D.C., and is funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods and Monsanto,” points out Anahad O’Connor for the New York Times. “One of the authors is a member of the scientific advisory board of Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest suppliers of high-fructose corn syrup.” 

Indeed, an editorial by a medical doctor and a dentist/MBA in the same issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine points out the inherent conflict of research funded by companies that would benefit from its conclusions.

“In essence, this study suggests that placing limits on ‘junk food’ is based on ‘junk science,’ a conclusion favorable to the junk food industry,” writes Dr. Dean Schillinger, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Studies are more likely to conclude there is no relationship between sugar consumption and health outcomes when scientists receive financial support from food and beverage companies.” 

Schillinger’s co-author, Cristen Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, earlier this year discovered a “cache of industry documents [that] revealed that the sugar industry began working closely with nutrition scientists in the mid-1960s to single out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of coronary heart disease and to downplay evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor,” as Elizabeth Fernandez reports on the UCSF News Center’s Web site.

Hewing a middle ground is Connie Diekman, RD, M Ed, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, who tellsEndocrine Web’s Kathleen Doheny: “Added sugars can fit into a healthful eating plan if that eating plan does two things. One, it includes foods that provide more nutritional like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthful protein choices and, second, if an individual’s calorie needs allow for the added sugar calories.” She adds, ‘… a healthful eating plan is about good nutrient balance, appropriate portions and enjoyable options — otherwise, it becomes a quick-fix diet.”

Meanwhile, lead author Johnson “conceded that the International Life Sciences Institute ‘essentially’ funded the research” but defends its validity to Carmen Chai of Canada’s Global News agency. 

“When a study is funded by industry, there’s no question there’s a perception issue but we believe we’re high integrity researchers. We’re very careful to question and monitor one another to make sure money we receive doesn’t influence efforts or conclusions,” he says.

“I'm laughing because what kind of evidence do you need? Sugar is calories and no nutrients and everybody would be healthier eating less of it,” Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Soda Politics, tells NPR’s Aubrey.

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