Sugar Wars: Junk Food, Junk Science, or Both?

Big Sugar and the politicization of science



Is eating too much sugar bad for you? And what's too much? As it happens average American per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners like refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is down from 111 grams per day in 1999 to 94 grams per day today. However, 94 grams per day adds up to over 75 pounds of sugar per year per person. Nearly 80 percent of the sugar we consume is found in candy, snack foods, and sweetened beverages, and is not inherent in the fruits and vegetables we also eat. A year ago, the government recommended that Americans get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. In 2,000 calorie per day standard diet, that would mean eating fewer than 200 calories in the form of sugar. Current consumption of 94 grams of sugar translates to 358 calories per day. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a different calculation in which per person annual consumption of caloric sweeteners peaked at 153.1 pounds in 1999 and fell to only 131.1 pounds in 2014.)

In September my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported on the recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that revealed that the drafter of the U.S. dietary goals was bribed by Big Sugar to demonize fat in the 1950s and 1960s. In this way, the sugar lobby managed to take the nutritional focus off of their own product as possibly delterious to good health. As Brown noted, "And this demonization of fat actually helped increase U.S. sugar consumption, as health conscious Americans replaced morning eggs and sausage with carbs like bagels, or turned to low-fat and fat-free offerings where added sugar helped fill the taste void."

Now Big Sugar strikes back? A new study (paywalled) just published in The Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), purporting to review the dietary guidelines relating to the consumption of sugar issued since 1995 by various countries and international health agencies, finds that they do "not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence." The authors consequently conclude that "at present, there seems to be no reliable evidence indicating that any of the recommended daily caloric thresholds for sugar intake are strongly associated with negative health effects."

The Annals of Internal Medicine also published a companion editorial strongly critiquing the main article. First, the authors of the critique point out that the funders of the study are associated with sweetened beverage and candy manufacturers. In addition, they assert that including standards in the study that were devised in 20 years ago is misleading since scientific understanding of the role of sugar in metabolism and diet has advanced. Finally they further argue that applying the AGREE II clinical practice evaluation instrument is inappropriate for gauging the risk of consumption of added sugars at a population level.

In fact, as Americans consumed more calories, including more calories from added sugars, per capita the rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes soared.

As my colleague Brown astutely observed:

A report published last fall found that government nutrition rules have been and are still based more on money and politics than sound science. The latest update to federal dietary guidelines still cautions against saturated fat and sodium. Members of the committee that developed these guidelines have accepted funding from industry groups, such as the Tree Nut Council, and food companies such as Unilever. …

Funding good nutrition research is expensive, and we shouldn't automatically look at industry-funded studies or researchers who accept food-industry funding as suspect. But let's not pretend like this sugar scandal is simply a relic of the bad old days of non-disclosure and undue influence. There continues to be every bit as much reason to look skeptically at government dietary advice today as there was in the 20th Century.

In any case, it would be well to take findings of the new AIM study with considerably less than 10 grams of sugar.

Heads up I will be reviewing Gary Taubes' new book: The Case Against Sugar soon.