Sugar giants pull trigger on research group

Sugar Nutrition UK: Born 1964, died 2016

By Louis Gore-Langton

- Last updated on GMT

Sugar Nutrition UK says sugar science is a global responsibility, critics say the sector is turning from science. ©iStock
Sugar Nutrition UK says sugar science is a global responsibility, critics say the sector is turning from science. ©iStock

Related tags Sugar Nutrition

50 year-old industry funded research body Sugar Nutrition UK has disbanded citing the need for sugar science to go global.

Sugar Nutrition UK conducted research into “science-based information on all aspects of sugars and health” ​since 1964.​ Sugar industry leaders AB Sugar and Tate & Lyle Sugars both withdrew funding from the group.

In explaining its demise Sugar Nutrition UK said “the science around sugar needs to be funded on a global basis given that it is a global issue​”.

Food policy expert, professor Jack Winkler of London Metropolitan University, pointed to a sector evidently in crisis.

“It is clear that they have not won the battle for hearts-and-minds.” ​Winkler told us. “The prominence of sugar as a nutritional issue is one proof of that. The local sugary drinks tax in the UK is another. So is the focus of the Child Obesity Plan here on the reformulation of sweet foods equals less sugar. Seen from the perspective of the sugar industry, they have lost a series of high profile policy battles”

“My guess is that they have come to the conclusion that future policy contests will not be won by rational argument…They will use other weapons in the future.”

Paul Kenward, managing director of British Sugar, a subsidiary of AB Sugar and owner of the Silver Spoon sugar brand, thanked Sugar Nutrition UK for its research contributions over the past 50 years, and said British Sugar remained committed to finding “real and workable solutions to the obesity crisis in the UK and helping to educate and inform people on the role sugar can play in the diet through our Making Sense of Sugar campaign, launched in 2014”.

Sugar Nutrition UK had been conducted for “a wide range of audiences, including health professionals, researchers, academics, policy makers, industry and media.”


Sugar isolation

The sugar industry has in the past hit out at research which singles sugar out as a cause of the obesity crisis. AB sugar claim this is misleading as many sources of calories contribute to obesity; according to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) average sugar intakes have declined whilst obesity rates continue to rise.  

Ex member of the now disbanded Sugar Bureau Dr. Carrie Ruxton, said “it doesn’t make sense to research sugar in isolation since many food sectors use it as an ingredient like soft drinks, cakes, biscuits, desserts, confectionery and this is where the majority of sugar comes from in the diet, rather than added to foods at home.”

AB Sugar has shifted its focus; its 2-year-old Making Sense of Sugar Campaign​ (aimed at tackling such confusion) states “Current scientific evidence does not suggest that sugar directly causes conditions such as obesity or diabetes”​ and offers guidance about incorporating sugar into healthy diets. 

It also funds several other UK-based sugar research programmes. It has provided unrestricted educational grants to think tank 2020Health which has conducted studies into obesity and healthy eating, and jointly funds the British Beet Research Organisation.

Ending negative research

The Making Sense of Sugar campaign was launched in 2014 to combat government research linking sugar consumption to negative health effects such as tooth decay, obesity and diabetes.  

The report​, released by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), also recommended that free sugars (sugar not occurring naturally in foods) should account for no more than 5% (half the 10% figure used in health guidance) of daily dietary intake, and that sugar-sweetened drinks should be minimised by both children and adults.

The SACN report drew upon eight different studies funded by Sugar Nutrition UK. The sugar industry’s investments into this research appear to have backfired; besides recommending tougher measures on free sugars, the SACN research was reportedly co-authored by members of Action on Sugar, an anti-sugar campaign group calling for even harsher measures than those recommended by SACN.

microbiology research science vitro gut probiotics bacteria iStock Zaharia_Bogdan

Dr Ruxton also said that data on body weight was omitted by SACN as it did not connect with sugar. She added “I would imagine that, with falling sugar sales and diversification into other ingredients, the industry no longer wants to fund a specific organisation for sugar”.

Despite sugar companies emphasising funding in other research programmes, Dr Ruxton said “With Sugar Nutrition UK gone, it is unlikely that randomised controlled trials will be carried out in future to examine at the impact of sugar on diet and health.”

Sweetened research?

The discovery of sugar industry documents​ recently revealed university researchers had been paid to emphasise the negative health effects of saturated fats, whilst playing down the role of sugars.

According to a report in the New York Times​, the research was released in 1967, a time when publishers like the New England Journal of Medicine ​were required to reveal conflicts of interest and study funding.

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