Sugar-Funded Study Questions Evidence Supporting Sugar Intake Guidelines

A study that purported to doubt on the scientific evidence supporting current sugar intake guidelines has been criticized for its funding source: the sugar, food, and beverage industries.

A study attempting to cast doubt on the scientific evidence supporting current sugar intake guidelines has been criticized for its funding source: the sugar, food, and beverage industries.

The research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine assessed the quality of 9 global, international, or national guidelines that advised decreasing the consumption of foods and beverages with added sugar. Researchers concluded that the quality of evidence supporting these recommendations was “low to very low” and therefore the guidelines “do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations.”

After grading each guideline on 6 domains using the Appraisal of Guidelines for Research and Evaluation, 2nd edition, the study found that only the guidelines issued by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council met the “acceptable” threshold of a score of 60% or more for all 6 domains.

The lowest median score of the guidelines at 33.3% was for the domain of editorial independence, which relates to “unbiased formulation of recommendations and competing interests.” This domain could also be considered the most ironic, as the authors were themselves funded by competing interests.

In the study’s methods section, the authors acknowledged that the research was supported by the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), but wrote that “the funding source had no role in the conduct of the review or the interpretation of data, manuscript review, or publication decision.”

Critics claim that a study receiving support from ILSI, which is funded by global food companies including Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, and Kellogg’s, cannot be relied upon to draw impartial conclusions. The New York Times also reported that one of the study’s authors is “a member of the scientific advisory board of Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest suppliers of high-fructose corn syrup.”

An editorial published concurrently in Annals of Internal Medicine wrote that the study provided “another occasion for concern” about conflicts between public interests and the interests of the food and beverage industry, citing the fact that “studies are more likely to conclude there is no relationship between sugar consumption and health outcomes when investigators receive financial support from [food and beverage] companies.”

The practice of these companies funding sympathetic research is not a new phenomenon. An October 2016 study revealed that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo had sponsored at least 96 groups, including the American Diabetes Association, while a 2015 investigation uncovered Coca-Cola’s efforts to underwrite research that “played down the connection between sugary drinks and obesity.”

According to the New York Times article, some experts say this most recent study “appeared to be an attempt by the industry to undermine sugar guidelines,” drawing comparisons to the tactics employed by tobacco companies in earlier decades. Beginning in the Great Depression, the cigarette industry paid off scientists to cast doubt on the risk of cancer associated with smoking.

In May, FDA finalized a new Nutrition Facts Label that will highlight the amount of added sugar in foods starting in 2018. The updated label had long been proposed, and reflects the 2015 update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which call for no more than 10% of a day’s calories to come from added sugar. Globally, the World Health Organization has called for limiting marketing of soda to children, in an effort to slow rising rates of obesity.