A prominent medical journal published a scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar Monday. Warnings to cut sugar, the study argued, are based on weak evidence and can’t be trusted.
But the review, published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, quickly elicited sharp criticism from public health experts because the authors have ties to the food and sugar industries.
The review was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, a scientific group based in Washington, D.C., that is funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods and Monsanto. 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.
Critics say the medical journal review is the latest in a series of efforts by the food industry to shape global nutrition advice by supporting prominent academics who question the role of junk food and sugary drinks in causing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
A report in September showed those efforts began in the 1960s when the sugar industry paid scientists to cast doubt on the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead. More recently, The New York Times found Coca-Cola had been funding scientists who played down the connection between sugary drinks and obesity. And The Associated Press reported in June that food companies paid for studies that claimed candy-eating children weigh less.
Some experts said the Annals review appeared to be an attempt by the industry to undermine sugar guidelines from the World Health Organization and other health groups that urge children and adults to consume fewer products with added sugar, such as soft drinks, candy and sweetened cereals. The paper, they say, is reminiscent of tactics once used by the tobacco industry, which for decades enlisted scientists to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.
“This comes right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook: cast doubt on the science,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research. “This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It’s shameful.”
But the scientists behind the paper said more scrutiny of sugar guidelines was needed. The researchers reviewed guidelines issued by the WHO and eight other agencies and said the case against sugar was based on “low-quality” evidence.
“The conclusion of our paper is a very simple one,” said Bradley Johnston, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Toronto and McMaster University and the lead author of the new paper. “We hope that the results from this review can be used to promote improvement in the development of trustworthy guidelines.”
Johnston said he recognized his paper would be criticized because of its ties to industry funding. But he said he hoped people would not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by dismissing the conclusion that sugar guidelines should be developed with greater rigor. He also emphasized that he was not suggesting that people eat more sugar. The review article, he said, questions specific recommendations about sugar, but “should not be used to justify higher intake of sugary foods and beverages.”