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Sugar Under Fire Again Amid Allegations Industry Funding Diverted Scientific and Consumer Attention to Fat

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Deny and subvert. South Park’s parody of Tom Brady’s strategy for dealing with bad press could easily be applied to a number of people, industries, or contexts. The latest in the spotlight is the sugar industry—under fire last week amid allegations the industry funded and influenced research with an agenda to shift the blame to fat. The outcome, many are arguing, was a potentially misplaced focus on low-fat diets…which opened the door for increased sugar consumption and contributed over several decades to the challenges we face with chronic diseases and obesity. Deflategate may be fizzling out with Brady halfway through his suspension, but the sugar industry’s woes are seemingly just beginning.

Sugar Advertisement

The latest uproar was sparked by an article published in JAMA Internal Medicine last week. The article describes historical internal documents that suggest the sugar industry sponsored research pointing to fat as the culprit in coronary heart disease–research that has informed dietary recommendations and shaped the public understanding and dialogue. In strategically sponsoring research, it appears the industry may have worked to downplay early warning signs of the negative health effects of sugar consumption by shifting the blame to fat. The ultimate result, as an author of the JAMA paper described: derailing the discussion about sugar.

The narrative is eerily similar to more prominently discussed actions by the tobacco industry.

What followed in the case of sugar was a decades-long campaign against fat. In fact, advertisements not only painted fat in a negative light but also touted the health benefits of sugar. One ad asked: "If sugar is so fattening, how come so many kids are thin?" Another, which appeared in a 1970 issue of LIFE, described sugar as "extra willpower." A nice thought for many of us I’m sure, but the ads are nothing short of alarming looking back now armed with the most recent science.

Encouraging, however, is that as the science continues to evolve so too do guidelines and regulations. Last month the American Heart Association released guidelines suggesting limits on how much "added sugar" children should consume in a day – less than six teaspoons and no more than eight ounces of sugary beverages a week:

American Heart Association Sugar Intake for Kids

And in May, the FDA announced a redesigned Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods designed to help consumers make better informed food choices. One big change—a separate line for "added sugars." For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda containing 65 grams of added sugar will clearly indicate a whopping 130 percent of the recommended daily consumption. That puts the afternoon caffeine fix in a different perspective.

FDA Nutrition Label Redesign

Look for the new label on most packaged food by July 2018 and for continued research on how the conversation and messaging reflects changing consumer perceptions and understanding of what it means to make "healthy" food choices. An evolving understanding of what’s recommended is a critical first step on what’s sure to be a long road to behavior change. The consumer may know best as the saying goes, but (s)he needs reliable information and, often, a nudge to put knowledge into action. We’re thrilled to be part of upcoming efforts to understand and provide just that—more to come!

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