Poisoned Well

Poisoned Arguments and Evidence for Sugar Guidance

A new systematic review published today in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine examines the evidence for sugar consumption guidance. Jennifer Erickson and colleagues conclude that the evidence quality is low or very low. The authors go on to call for more trustworthy guidelines on sugar intake.

In what resembles a religious war over sugar, those are fighting words. So, Annals published an editorial alongside the review. Dean Schillinger and Cristin Kearns dismissed the review as an example of “tactics that industry often uses to advocate for the safety of unsafe products.” Schillinger and Kearns are professors at the University of California at San Francisco.

Smearing anyone who questions the dogma that “sugar is toxic” has become a bedrock argument for advancing that dogma. The argument is that people who question assumptions about sugar are “shills” for “big food.” They find themselves compared to shills for the tobacco industry. The movement to shame people who question conventional wisdom even has a catchphrase for Twitter trolls: “shillers for killers.”

Memories are short. In the 1980s, evidence that saturated fats might cause heart disease became twisted into broad recommendations for low-fat food. “Big food” responded by taking fat out of its products. “Low-fat” became a ubiquitous health claim. For quite some time, defenders of the groupthink dismissed people who questioned low-fat dietary guidelines as shills for fatty fast food.

It turned out that low-fat dietary guidance lacked a strong evidence base. Based on that weak evicence, dietary patterns shifted toward more refined carbohydrates and sugar. Mistakes were made. Public health suffered.

This time around, we would do well to listen and respond thoughtfully to scientists who are questioning groupthink about sugar. Sugar is neither poison nor potion. Shillinger and Kearns decry the “politicization of science.”

They should ask themselves if they are contributing to it.

Click here for the study, here for the editorial, and here for more from NPR.

Poisoned Well, painting by Jacek Malczewski / WikiArt

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December 20, 2016

3 Responses to “Poisoned Arguments and Evidence for Sugar Guidance”

  1. December 20, 2016 at 7:19 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    it almost writes itself, Ted! Ugh, this stuff is tiresome.

    Thank you for calling it as you see it.


  2. December 23, 2016 at 11:43 am, Daniel said:

    “The argument is that people who question assumptions about sugar are “shills” for “big food.” They find themselves compared to shills for the tobacco industry.”

    Have you bothered to look at the disclosed sources of funding for this ‘review’? They were funded by industry. They ARE shills for big food.

    • December 23, 2016 at 3:50 pm, Ted said:

      That assertion is Incorrect, Daniel. A shill is: “An accomplice of a confidence trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others.” One’s own assumptions about a research question do not justify disparagement of researchers whose results call those assumptions into question. Facts are more persuasive than flawed ad hominem argumentation.

      Character assassination is no substitute for facts.