Research into sweeteners: the studies we shouldn’t believe

Sugar research

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From being dubbed "empty calories" to being argued as the primary contributor to heart disease, sugar has been a huge issue of debate over the years. In the most recent turn, certain parties have suggested warning labels for sugary drinks, and the UK government has advised that no more than 5% of individuals’ daily calorie intake should come from sugar. However, the most heated arguments have surrounded the recent revelation that research into the health status of sugar and sweeteners has been continually funded by the sugar and sweetener industry itself.

Industry-funded bias

According to an article in The Guardian, once of the most influential pieces of research on sugar from the 1960s was paid for by the sugar industry. The research downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease as, with backing from a sugar lobby, scientists “promoted dietary fat as the cause of coronary heart disease instead of sugar, according to a historical document review published in JAMA Internal Medicine.”

These findings expose the fact that the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), now known as the Sugar Association, “set an objective for the review, funded it and reviewed drafts before it was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which did not require conflict of interest disclosure until 1984. The three Harvard scientists who wrote the review made what would be $50,000 in today’s dollars from the review.”

Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies and public health professor at New York University, said that this is far from a thing of the past, as the food industry continues to influence nutritional science. She says: “Today, it is almost impossible to keep up with the range of food companies sponsoring research – from makers of the most highly processed foods, drinks, and supplements to producers of dairy foods, meats, fruits, and nuts – typically yielding results favourable to the sponsor’s interests.” Nestle continues, “Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermine public trust in nutrition science, contribute to public confusion about what to eat, and compromise Dietary Guidelines in ways that are not in the best interest of public health.”

Artificial sweeteners – a misleading substitute?

The Sunday Morning Herald claims that the artificial sweetener industry has a reputation that is no better. According to a University of Sydney study, “Industry funding into the efficacy of artificial sweeteners in weight loss is nearly 17 times more likely to deliver a favourable result than independent research”. This somewhat dazzling number is even more shocking when you consider that "100 per cent of the industry-sponsored studies concluded that aspartame was safe and 92 per cent of the independently funded studies identified adverse effects of aspartame consumption".

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener, is present in many fizzy drinks claiming to be ‘diet’ or ‘zero calorie’ alternatives, but the safety of the ingredient has been under fierce dispute. Marion Nestle says that this is far from exceptional: "The results are consistent with a vast body of research on pharmaceutical industry sponsorship of medical research, and also consistent with the few studies that have been done on nutrition research since 2003.”

Who can we trust?

The overriding issue in research funding extends beyond the simple problem of bias, however. With state funding into higher education and research continually waning, researchers are being forced to collaborate with industries in order to sustain the research that keeps them employed by universities. The oft-repeated phrase in research is “publish or perish”, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that some are choosing to publish biased results rather than sacrifice their career. But for the rest of us, that leaves the question – who can we trust?

Professor Lisa Bero says that in fact “it is not industry research, per se, that is the problem. It is the type of funding. What is needed are safeguards and also having industry contributing to a common pot to fund food safety research."

As an article on the blog, Evolution in a Toxic World points out, “we also tend to forget that science is a process. We learn about our health and environment through not just one study or review – but many, expanding our understanding bit by bit. And while one study may warrant a bit of healthy scepticism; a whole slew of studies (by a diversity of scientists) warrants our trust.”

For restauranteurs and retailers with an interest in presenting consumers with ethically-informed, healthy choices, the key is to read widely. Read independent studies from scientists, read first-hand reports from nutritionists, keep up to date with the world of health blogging. Above all, we must remain analytical and open to new information.

The importance of transparency

But how does this translate into industry best practice? How do consumers expect the ongoing concerns over sugar to affect their eating out experience? Of course, some individuals are more health-conscious than others, which necessitates a flexible approach to health accommodations in hospitality. Successful outlets will present low-sugar products as healthy options and as appealing choices simultaneously. Often, the only way to be assured that a meal or drink is healthy is to use natural ingredients, and this is growing as a priority for many businesses, who cook completely from fresh and buy in products from trusted organic, natural brands alone.

The fundamental factor, however, is transparency. As more news stories uncover the ongoing relationships between the sugar and sweetener industries and dietary research, consumers are becoming more aware of these relationships, and more critical of the industry itself. Therefore, trust is an issue of extreme importance to many. The only way to counter the resistance of health-conscious consumers to the food and drink business is to adopt a policy of complete transparency, whether this be versing waiters in the exact ingredients of a dish, or displaying the sugar and calorie content on a drinks menu. As we reported in a recent blog, the secret to using healthy alternatives in business lies with consumer customisation. By informing your staff, being open about your ingredients and upholding your ethics, customers will come to understand that your establishment is a reliable entity to stand apart from this often-confusing debate over sugar.