Sugar Scandal — Industry-Biased Study Questions Validity of Sugar Guidelines

Story at-a-glance -

  • For the first time ever, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the amount of sugar you eat to 10 percent of your total daily calories
  • An industry-funded review claims the evidence showing sugar intake is proportionate with weight gain is of “low-quality” and that the evidence does not support any specific limit on sugar
  • The review was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a trade group representing the Coca-Cola Company, Hershey, PepsiCo and many other junk food purveyors. Would you suspect any other conclusion?

By Dr. Mercola

Research spanning many decades shows excess sugar damages your health, yet the sugar industry successfully buried the evidence and misdirected the public with faux science.

According to the sugar industry, sugar is harmless and may even be an important part of a healthy diet. To this day, they're promoting the myth that saturated fat is to blame for weight gain and ill health, not sugar, along with the thoroughly debunked calories-in, calories-out (energy balance) theory.

Fortunately, the truth is emerging and taking hold, and some great books have been written exposing the history and extent of the cover-ups. Two examples are science journalist Gary Taubes' book, "The Case Against Sugar," and Marion Nestle, Ph.D.'s, "Soda Politics."

Sugar Industry Has Influenced Health Recommendations for Decades

Dr. Cristin Kearns, a dentist and fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), also made headlines with her Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine paper,1 which details the sugar industry's historical influence on dietary recommendations.2,3,4,5,6,7

Evidence has also emerged showing how the sugar industry influenced the scientific agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research, which back in 1971 created a national caries program — again downplaying any links between sugar consumption and dental caries.8

In 2012, Taubes and Kearns co-wrote "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," an exposé featured in Mother Jones.9

"For 40 years, the sugar industry's priority has been to shed doubt on studies suggesting its product makes people sick. On federal panels, industry-funded scientists cited industry-funded studies to dismiss sugar as a culprit," they wrote.

To combat the flow of industry-funded misinformation, dozens of scientists at three American universities banded together to create an educational website called,10 aimed at making independent sugar research available to the public.

Recent media reports have also revealed devastating evidence showing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) executive aided a Coca-Cola representative in efforts to influence World Health Organization (WHO) officials to relax recommendations on sugar limits.11

The damning email correspondence between Coca-Cola and the CDC was obtained by the nonprofit consumer education group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK).12

New Sugar Limits Put Junk Food Industry in a Pickle

For the first time ever, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the amount of sugar you eat to 10 percent of your total daily calories.13 For a 2,000 calorie diet this amounts to 10 to 12 teaspoons, or just over the amount found in one 12-ounce can of regular Coke.

Based on the evidence from some studies, even this amount can trigger health problems, but it's certainly better than no limit at all. Other health organizations have gone even further.

For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) now recommends kids between the ages of 4 and 8 limit their added sugar to a maximum of 3 teaspoons a day (12 grams). Children aged 9 and older should stay below 8 teaspoons.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting daily added sugar intake to:14,15,16,17,18,19,20

  • 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men
  • 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women
  • 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for toddlers and teens between the ages of 2 and 18
  • Zero added sugars for kids under the age of 2

Twenty-five grams of sugar per day is my recommended limit for men and women alike, with the added caveat that if you have insulin or leptin resistance (overweight, diabetic, high blood pressure or taking a statin drug), you'd be wise to restrict your total fructose consumption to as little as 15 grams per day until you've normalized your insulin and leptin levels.

Not surprisingly, these new recommendations — along with the new requirement to declare the total amount of added sugars on food labels — place the sugar and processed food industries in a tight spot and threaten profits.

Industry-Funded Study Claims War on Sugar Waged With 'Low-Quality' Evidence

The junk food industry's answer? Create another study to refute the validity of the recommended limits on sugar.21,22,23,24 As reported by CBS:25

"The study26 from McMaster University claims that the evidence for prior knowledge in how sugar intake is proportionate with weight gain, across nine public health guidelines, is 'low-quality.'"

In conclusion, these industry-funded science reviewers found that:

"Guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence. Public health officials (when promulgating these recommendations) and their public audience (when considering dietary behavior) should be aware of these limitations …

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 results from this review should be used to promote improvement in the development of trustworthy guidelines on sugar intake."

Who Funded This Scientific Review and Why?

The review was funded by the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a trade group representing the Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the Hershey Company, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo and many others.

In an accompanying editorial,27 Dr. Dean Schillinger, professor of medicine in residence at UCSF and chief of the UCSF Division of General Internal Medicine, along with Kearns, note that ILSI has a history of opposing sugar limits. This in and of itself raises questions about the findings. Moreover, as reported by Medscape:28

"The editorialists also take issue with some of the premises of the review. One is that the authors cite inconsistency among recommendations made between 1995 and 2016 as a basis for needing a new review of guidelines. 'One would expect recommendations spanning more than two decades to evolve as scientific knowledge evolved,' Schillinger and Kearns write …

Schillinger and Kearns say using the AGREE II measure is problematic to assess guideline quality because it is designed for clinical-practice guidelines in treating illness. Dietary guidelines are meant to gauge risk of consumption at a population level, they write, 'not to evaluate interventions to reduce consumption.' The authors, using that tool, downgraded the trustworthiness of guidelines."

'Trust Us, We're Impartial'

Ironically, the only "limitation" listed for this study29 was that "The authors conducted the study independent of the funding source, which is primarily supported by the food and agriculture industry." Essentially, what they're saying is that, yes, the study was funded by the food industry, but you can trust the results because we made sure we stayed completely impartial.

I don't know about you, but I don't find that particularly convincing. Moreover, a corrected version of the disclosure statement reveals that ILSI did review and approve the scope of the protocol for the study.30 AP News also found that one of the review's authors, Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., a professor at University of Minnesota, had received undisclosed funding in the amount of $25,000 from Coca-Cola in 2014. Meanwhile, Slavin did disclose a grant from the Mushroom Council.

Slavin defended her decision not to disclose funding from Coca-Cola, saying the grant had been received through the university's foundation and therefore was not subject to disclosure. This is a loophole that researchers appear to use with some frequency to justify non-disclosure of clear conflicts of interest.

She also did not disclose a grant received from Quaker Oats, owned by PepsiCo, nor did she include her work on a 2012 ILSI-funded paper on sugar guidelines. According to AP News, Slavin claims she plans to file an updated disclosure to include all of these conflicts of interest.

Review Shows Massive Research Bias Based on Funding

To help eliminate research bias, Kearns and Schillinger suggest scientific journals should refuse to publish studies funded by the food and beverage industries as a matter of policy, noting that many leading journal editors have stopped accepting studies funded by the tobacco industry. They also suggest that when policy makers are faced with claims that sugar guidelines are based on junk science, they would be wise to consider the source of such claims.

Schillinger and Kearns should know. In November 2016, the pair, along with two other authors, published a paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled "Do Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Cause Obesity and Diabetes? Industry and the Manufacture of Scientific Controversy."31 In all, they looked at 60 studies published between 2001 and 2016 to examine the potential links between funding and study outcomes.

"We comprehensively surveyed the literature to determine whether experimental studies that found no association between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity- and diabetes-related outcomes (negative studies) are more likely than positive studies to have received financial support from this industry," they write.

The results? Of the 60 studies, 26 found no link between sugary drinks and obesity or diabetes, and ALL were funded by the beverage industry; 34 did find a relationship, and only one of these positive studies had received industry funding. In conclusion, they noted that: "This industry seems to be manipulating contemporary scientific processes to create controversy and advance their business interests at the expense of the public's health."

Some of the studies giving sugar a free pass has industry fingerprints clearly visible all over it. For example, one paper32 came to the unbelievable and highly unlikely conclusion that eating candy may help prevent weight gain, as children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don't.

The source of the funding reveals the basis for such a bizarre conclusion: the Confectioners Association, which represents candy makers like Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-backed research has also come to the highly improbable and irresponsible conclusion that drinking diet soda is more helpful for weight loss than pure water.33

Biased Research Used in 'Propaganda War'

As reported by Time magazine:34

"This is not the first time the soda or sugar industry has been criticized for interfering with public health. In October, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that between 2011 [and] 2015, 96 national health organizations accepted money from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo or both companies.

In 2015 it was revealed that Coca-Cola funded an organization called the Global Energy Balance Network that tried to shift public health messaging away from a focus on diet and onto exercise. 35

'The reality is we are in a public health war with diabetes right now,' says Schillinger. 'In every war there is propaganda. What the public should take away from [these findings] is that we are being played. If you exclude the studies funded by industry and only look at the independently funded studies, it becomes apparent that sugar-sweetened beverages cause obesity and diabetes.'"

One company breaking ranks with its ILSI peers is Mars Inc., which issued a statement saying the paper "undermines the work of public health officials and makes all industry-funded research look bad."36

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

In 1812, people ate approximately 9 grams of sugar per day.37 That equates to about one can of soda every five days. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates the average American now consumes 15 teaspoons of added sugar per day.38 The CDC puts the average percent of total daily calories from added sugars at about 13 percent.39

As noted by Schillinger,40 if the public were to follow guidelines to restrict sugar to 5 or 10 percent of daily calories, "this would mean that profits for junk food companies would fall by half. So there is both a lot of money and a lot of lives on the line."

You may recognize your cake, candy or sweet treat is loaded with sugar but may not think about your condiments, salad dressings, canned foods and drinks other than sodas. For instance, just 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce can contain as much as 10 grams of sugar.41 There are also different types of dry and syrup sugars that may go unnoticed as you read the labels. Examples of added sugars you may not be aware of include, but are not limited to, the following:42

Blackstrap molasses

Buttered syrup

Cane juice crystals

Evaporated cane juice


Carob syrup

Fruit juice


Fruit juice concentrate

Brown rice syrup

Corn syrup solids

Florida Crystals

Golden syrup

Maple syrup


Refiner's syrup

Sorghum syrup




Barley malt

Corn syrup



Diastatic malt

Ethyl maltol


Glucose solids


Malt syrup



Rice syrup




With greater media attention and consumer demand, some companies are beginning to make minor changes. For instance, Yoplait reduced their sugar content in the popular strawberry yogurt from 26 grams — 1 gram less than a Snickers bar43 — to 18 grams.44 Still, with a max limit of 25 grams, a single yogurt equates to 72 percent of your daily allotment!

Crush Your Sugar Addiction

Sugar causes very real damage to your body and cells, and the addiction to the substance is also very real. There are several strategies you can use to reduce or eliminate your intake of added sugars, while still enjoying your meals and feeling satisfied after eating.

Knowledge Is Power

Making permanent changes to your lifestyle and nutritional choices is easier when you know the why behind the change. You can see a quick list of the 76 different ways sugar negatively impacts your health in my previous article, "The Truth About Sugar Addiction."

Reduce Your Net Carbs

Sugar is metabolized as a carbohydrate in your body, spiking your blood sugar and insulin levels. Your net carbs are calculated by taking the total grams of carbs and subtracting the total grams of fiber.

By keeping your net carbs below 100 grams per day, and for a healthier diet as low as 50 grams per day, you will reduce your cravings for sweets. If you keep your net carbs at 50 grams or below for a long time, it would be wise to increase it to 100 to 150 grams per day once or twice a week unless you are treating a serious illness.

Eat Real Food

If a food is boxed, canned or bottled, it's likely also been processed and may include added sugar. Whole, organic and non-genetically engineered (GE) foods provide your body with the nutrition you need to function optimally and natural sugars bound to fiber that reduces your net carbs.

Read Labels

On processed foods you do purchase, scour the label for ingredients that represent sugar to evaluate the total amount. The less sugar you eat, the less you'll crave.

Use Safer Sweeteners

Not all sugar substitutes are created equally. Avoid using artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Safer alternatives include Stevia, Luo Han Guo (also spelled Luo Han Kuo), and pure glucose (dextrose). Contrary to fructose, glucose can be used directly by every cell in your body and as such is a far safer sugar alternative. It will however raise your net carb intake.

Reduce the Sugar You Add Gradually

If going cold turkey hasn't worked for you in the past, try slowly reducing the amount of sugar you add to your drinks. This helps give your taste buds time to adjust to drinking your favorite tea or coffee without the added sweetener.

Increase Your Healthy Fat Intake at Meals

Fat increases your satisfaction with meals and your food, reducing your craving for something sweet afterward. Avocadoes, coconut oil, nuts and seeds increase your healthy fat content, fill you up and reduce your sweet cravings.

Include Fermented Foods

Fermented foods support your digestive health and improve your gut microbiome, and the sour taste naturally helps reduce your sweet cravings.

Try Turbo Tapping

Emotional and stress eating is not uncommon. Using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) you can address your stress levels and the discomfort you may feel from giving up junk foods in your diet.

Turbo tapping is a form of EFT designed specifically for sugar addiction and is well worth a try if you're struggling to give up soda and other sweets.

+ Sources and References