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‘Skepticism’ towards industry-funded sugar and calories research, says NCA

By Oliver Nieburg+

27-Mar-2014
Last updated on 27-Mar-2014 at 13:39 GMT

The confectionery industry hope to build its case for candy as part of a healthy diet by funding research, but could its findings be questioned by a skeptical public?
The confectionery industry hope to build its case for candy as part of a healthy diet by funding research, but could its findings be questioned by a skeptical public?

The US National Confectioners Association (NCA) has earmarked consumer education on calories and sugar as an industry priority for 2014 but admits there is skepticism about industry-funded research.

One recently published study in the New England journal supported by the NCA indicated that the average US consumer could continue usual candy eating habits without fear of weight gain and greater cardiovascular disease risk.

But as the industry builds its case for confections as part of a healthy diet, will results from studies financially backed by the trade body be distrusted?

Perceived bias

“That is unfortunately a problem that we have encountered. There is a lot of skepticism about industry funded research in the academic world,” NCA’s director of technical and regulatory affairs Laura Shumow told ConfectioneryNews.

Studies in academic journals funded by industry must pass through an independent peer-review process, just like any other submission.

2007 study that analyzed scientific articles on statins found that those sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry were more likely than non-industry-funded trials to report results and conclusions that favored the drug over placebo, even when controlling for risk of biases.

How are authors selected?

The NCA said that it was completely uninvolved in studies it funded. The organization said it issued requests for proposals and welcomed submissions from scientists.

“We’ll consider numerous factors like their prestige and the frankly the cost as well,” said Shumow.

Getting balance

But what if a vocal advocate of sugar reduction such as ‘Fat Chance’ author Robert Lustig applied?

“We wouldn’t necessarily not select them,” said Shumow.  “But what I’ve noticed is that they’re less inclined to submit proposals.”

“If we put out a request for proposals and Robert Lustig submitted a proposal we’d certainly consider it, but he hasn’t. I think these researchers in a way have their own bias against the industry that needs to be considered as well.”

It’s not worth the effort…

Katharine Jenner, campaign director for Action On Sugar , a campaign group for sugar reduction featuring Robert Lustig, gave her take on why no ‘anti-sugar’ scientists had sought NCA support for their research.

“…I would guess that due to its lack of credibility, no one working on policy would consider conflicted evidence when decision making, so maybe they feel it’s not worth the effort in challenging it.”

50-100 calories from candy a day

NCA-funded research found that the average US consumer ate candy around three times a week, which Shumow said equated to 2% of their daily caloric intake or about 50 calories a day.

The NCA then took this average and compared to dietary guidance and asked how many calories were left to enjoy a treat after getting recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables and other nutrients.

“We’ve determined that about 50-100 calories from candy a day could fit into the diet while still leaving enough room to consume a healthy diet from other foods,” said Shumow.

“You might be surprised that while most of the sugar in candy products is added, in the US, the data that we looked at showed that only 6% of added sugar came from confectionery,” said Shumow.

“While this is an area that has a lot of interest surrounding it right now, it may not be as closely linked to candy as it is in some consumer’s minds.”

50-100 calories is less than in a regular sized single-serve candy bar of around 250 calories, but the industry has begun to introduce smaller portion options.

Lies, damned lies and statistics?

However, Action on Sugar criticized the NCA’s study design. “They are hiding behind national average figures, just as the British Soft Drinks people do,” said Jenner.

“Some would only have it [candy] less, and some much more frequently - meaning many, many more are having much, much more than this – and likely to be biased to children and lower income people very heavily.”

She added that the figures assumed people stuck to dietary guidelines on calories per day, which didn’t reflect reality.

Calorie intakes

According to a US government national survey data, the average calorie intake among women and men older than age 19 years is estimated to be 1,785 and 2,640 calories per day, respectively. Recommended calories intakes depend on age and gender and are available HERE.

“If it [candy] really is 2% [of the average caloric intake], this would mean 40% of the ‘recommended maximum’ intake of 5% sugars is coming from candy [based on the World Health Organizations revised guidance] – that’s a lot,” said Jenner.

WHO  recently said that it, “would have additional benefits” to halve a person’s recommended sugar intake to 5% of total calorie intake per day due to new research on obesity and dental carries. However, the current 10% guidance is still in place and consultations on a revised policy are ongoing.

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