Sugar may be the next fat.
A highly anticipated report by the World Health Organization suggests the natural sweetener leads to obesity when it displaces nutrients in the diet—a finding that has the U.S. sugar industry in an uproar.
WHO's report, Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, first made headlines in April 2002 after draft copies linking the sugar in sodas with obesity began to circulate. By the time the report was officially released March 3, the lines in the sand had already been drawn between parties supporting the research and parties calling it baseless.
The thesis of the report is fairly straightforward: WHO researchers concluded that unless individuals limit their intake of added sugars, including sugars in soft drinks, to less than 10 percent of daily calories, they are looking at obesity and dental problems.
The international controversy is centered on the position taken by the Washington, D.C.-based Sugar Association and, later, by members of the U.S. Senate Sweetener Caucus. In a series of increasingly angry letters to WHO Director General Harlem Bruntdland, M.D., Richard Keelor, Ph.D., president and chief executive of the Sugar Association, accused WHO of letting its standards deteriorate to a point where it had 30 experts draw conclusions on dietary requirements based on 13 citations.
"The expert panel's complete disregard of the preponderance of the scientific evidence and its failure to offer substantial documentation for their recommendation of 10 percent total restriction for daily added sugars cannot go unchallenged," Keelor wrote in a letter to Bruntdland on March 14.
Last September, the Institute of Medicine issued a report, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids, that the Sugar Association read as recommending a diet be comprised of no more than 25 percent sugar, more than double WHO's recommendation. Since the IOM report was based on 279 scientific references, Keelor said it was better research than that produced by WHO.
But IOM President Harvey Fineberg said in a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson that the Sugar Association had taken the recommendation out of context. "The IOM simply has not researched the impact this level of sugar intake would have on people's weight or calorie balance," Fineberg wrote.
The Sugar Association, which lists 16 cane and beet sugar growers and processors as corporate members, didn't return calls for comment. However, WHO offered an explanation for its chief critic's behavior. "The Sugar Association is coming at this from an industry perspective," spokesman David Porter said. "Obviously, WHO doesn't get its funding from any particular industry, and this is not an industry issue; it is an issue of public health."
A United Nations agency, WHO gets its funding from member states, and that's the money the Sugar Association is threatening to make Congress take away. So far the association found at least two sympathizers in the co-chairmen of the Senate Sweetener Caucus: Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and John Breaux, D-La. (beet and cane sugar growing states, respectively.)
The United States contributes $406 million to WHO each year.
If the United States were to follow WHO's lead and start a campaign educating people on the harms of sugar in the same fashion it did with tobacco and fat, it would probably take years to develop and, in the near term, wouldn't affect sales of low-sugar products, industry insiders believe.
"I think when most people think of sugar they think of candy bars and don't think of reading the label for the tomato sauce," said Jagat Khalsa, chief operating officer of Kombucha Wonder Drink.
"The sugar discussion is really a discussion on over-consumption," said Kristine Clark, a dietitian at Pennsylvania State University. Eating sugars in moderation is OK, she said. Problems start when sodas are consumed instead of juices, and cookies are eaten not piecemeal, but by the box. Folks interested in control over their sugar consumption also should consult with a dietitian, since there are different kinds of sugars to think about when planning a daily diet.
Max Smetannikov is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.