Study shows the dietary guidelines might be wrong about sugar intake

Sugar-coated? We’ve all heard about the recent turnaround in low-fat studies: Fat is the culprit, said the experts. Sugar is much less harmful. Then it was revealed that food and beverage companies had manipulated research projects to keep the heat off sugars.

The revised take has been that it’s really sugar that makes you fat, and it’s fats that burn more calories than carbs do, and it’s sugar that numbs you to insulin and sets your metabolism off kilter, and, and, and…

The study showed that current recommendations for daily sugar intake are based on poor science.

But a study published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine once again challenges the prevailing wisdom about sugar intake. A team from McMaster University and the University of Minnesota looked at the most influential public health guidelines (over the past 20 years) that recommend levels of sugar intake. Applying various criteria, the researchers found that the guidelines score poorly on “rigor of development, applicability, and editorial independence.”

In other words, the study showed that current recommendations for daily sugar intake are based on poor science. Now, to be clear, the team isn’t recommending a gummi bear run: there is a consensus that sugar should be limited. But as Bradley Johnston, one of the study’s authors, puts it: “The question remains to what degree, and if we are limiting our sugar intake what are we replacing the sugar with?” He provides this example: “sugars are often replaced with starches and other food additives like maltodextrine, providing the same calorie count, but often accompanied by an increased glycemic index (and blood glucose levels).”

Behnam Sadeghirad, a McMaster PhD student in health research methodology and another of the study’s authors, says “at present, there does not appear to be reliable evidence indicating that any of the recommended daily caloric thresholds for sugar intake are strongly associated with negative health effects.”

Cue the predictable outcry: good food guru and author Marion Nestle called it “shameful,” the researchers backed their work, and all eyes shifted to the funding fine print. As NPR reports, the study was funded by the International Life Science Institute, which is supported by McDonald’s, Mars, Coke, and Pepsi. How sweet it is.

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Jeffrey Kittay After teaching literature at Yale, Kittay founded and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life, which the New York Times called “a hip trade journal for the cerebral set.” It won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He was subsequently part of the adjunct faculty at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, and the corporate board of Maine’s Portland Press Herald.

Kittay holds a Ph.D. from NYU and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Amherst College.