Features International Sugar Journal

Sugar and health: Why evidence-based science is as important now as ever

Not a day goes by without a media story somewhere around the world linking a food, or a nutrient, with health. Sometimes cheerfully (“eating chocolate may help prevent heart disease”) and sometimes less cheerfully (“Here’s why chocolate might give some people headaches”).

One thing is for certain, whatever a person’s food environment – whether one of food security or insecurity – health is important to everyone globally.

What is much less certain is the science behind the media headlines. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust diet and health, including sugar and health, into the media spotlight again. Interestingly though, the pandemic has also thrust science into media headlines, and into household conversations, in a way previously unseen.

Mealtime conversations around the world now centre on previously unheard scientific terms such as “the R number,” and the progress of vaccine trials. We have been living in an age of increasing global distrust in science, but the world is at a pivotal point regarding Covid-19 and trust in science.

Amidst what may now be a new age of growing trust in science, access by the sugar industry to “good science” (science that is evidence-based, objective and readily understandable by the industry) will be more important than ever.

Sensational and poor media reporting of science, especially when headlines conflict with scientific consensus, has led to rising consumer misunderstanding about the health effects of carbohydrates. At the start of the year (prior to Covid-19 & growing global food insecurity), Google revealed the top 10 most searched health questions of 2019. In America, “keto diet” (a very low carbohydrate / low sugar diet popularized by health bloggers) was number two.  Research on the long-term health effects of such weight loss diets is lacking but poorer intakes of fibre (especially from wholegrains) and higher intakes of red meat (high intakes of which have been associated with bowel cancer) have been reported among people following very low carbohydrate diets. Whether such diets result in sustained weight loss in the long term (i.e. not putting weight back on again) also remains unclear.

In Europe and the Americas, health concerns and public policy are affecting demand for sugar, particularly in beverages. The “sugar alternatives” and high intensity sweetener markets are forecast to grow. Yet consumer understanding of “sugar alternatives”, such as plant-based syrups and nectars, and low-calorie sweeteners, remains low. Many consumers are unsure which of these contain sugars or not and are unsure of the relative calorie (dietary energy) content compared with table sugar. Many plant-based syrups and nectars that are purported by the media as “healthier alternatives to sugar” contain the same number of calories per gram as table sugar.

It is important that the sugar industry possesses the expertise and skills set to understand and evaluate the global scientific evidence on sugar and health and, where appropriate, to communicate scientific consensus to consumers in an understandable format.

Joining together to support objective research into sugar and health, to address the many remaining knowledge gaps in this research field, is fundamental to ensuring sustainable businesses and healthy consumers and employees for the future.

Anna Denny, Director General, World Sugar Research Organisation

Endnote:

The World Sugar Research Organisation (www.wsro.org) is a globally recognised and trusted resource on the science of sugar’s role in health and nutrition, providing relevant evidence-based scientific information, analysis and perspective to members and stakeholders. WSRO monitors and communicates global scientific evidence on sugar and health in an understandable format, identifying where scientific consensus is and supporting research to address knowledge gaps. For membership information contact info@wsro.org or visit https://wsro.org/contact-us/