Big Sugar Takes a Swing at World Health Guidelines By Funding New Study

A medical journal review, paid for by the big-food industry, questions the scientific link between sugar consumption and poor health

sugar health
Alex Testere

We've been down this road before: big business looking for a way to discredit scientific consensus, with seemingly no regard for public health. Taking a leaf right out of Big Tobacco's book, the sugar industry—using the D.C.-based International Life Sciences Institute as a proxy—commissioned a study in big-name journal The Annals of Internal Medicine that concluded that the "guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence."' Here's the catch: The International Life Sciences Institute is funded by a who's who cluster of big food-and-drink corporations including: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey's, Mars, Kellogg's, Kraft, and Monsanto.

The study comes on the heels of the World Health Organizations call in 2015' for adults and children to reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake, according to the New York Times. In the United States, various organizations are also imposing their own individual restrictions, such as the FDA adding language to ensure the disclosure of added sugars on labels and local governments passing taxes on soda.

Unsurprisingly, the backlash from the scientific community has been swift. Leading the charge is Dean Schillinger, a University of California, San Francisco physician, who penned an editorial rebuttal, also published in The Annals, emphasizing the conflict of interest. Schillinger told NPR, "Nearly all experimental studies that examined whether eating added sugars contributes to obesity and [Type 2] diabetes-related outcomes show a cause-and-effect relationship." A host of other scientists echoed his sentiment, including one New York University professor, Marion Nestle, who called the paper "shameful."

Lost in the criticism, however, as The Atlantic points out, is the answer to the study's core question of whether government sugar guidelines are as effective as they could be. (The piece also draws attention to Schillinger's personal involvement in diabetes-prevention advocacy as an intellectual conflict of interest). Regardless of who paid for the review, its argument—that the criteria for sugar intake recommendations are based on "low quality" evidence—is an issue worth raising independently. As the rebuttal contends, "Facing panic over the continued, relentless climb in obesity and diabetes rates with no solution in sight, [governments have] gone ahead and passed sugar guidelines pinned to exact thresholds. If as the Annals paper concludes, experts are skirting scientific norms by passing guidelines based on weak evidence, the whole process of guideline-making is effectively watered down."

But while the obesity crisis may well be behind the push to recommend a 10% limit for sugar consumption, and while there may be a lack of extensive data from clinical trials, we hardly think that the defining study on the topic should be co-signed by the likes of Coca-Cola, Hershey's, and Monsanto. And aside from causing weight gain and diabetes, sugar is, irrefutably, an addictive substance whose withdrawal symptoms have been compared to those of cocaine.

It’s a sticky topic, to be sure, one where more data is of course always better, but the real recommendations must come from those don’t stand to gain from the public’s doubt and misinformation.