Sugar: an excess of anything can harm

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As director-general of the World Sugar Research Organisation, I wish to point out some shortcomings in the latest discussion of sugar's impact on health (Nature 482, 2729; 2012).

Robert Lustig and colleagues incorrectly say that sugar consumption has tripled worldwide since the 1960s. The global population has more than doubled in that time, so the increase in sugar supply per head is more like 60%. In fact, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom all show only marginal changes over the past few decades in average sugar consumption as a proportion of food-energy intake.

The authors argue that sugar can kill because of its supposed influence on metabolic syndrome (itself a controversial concept), indirectly implicating a WHO Technical Report that draws no such conclusion. There is little consistent effect on the symptoms of this syndrome in people who eat up to three times more sugar than the average Western intake (A. S. Truswell Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 59, 710S718S; 1994). Neither have any deaths been attributed to dietary sugars in an exhaustive analysis of US mortality figures (G. Danaei et al. PLoS Medicine 6, e100058; 2009).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the US Food and Nutrition Board, and the European Food Standards Authority have all considered the issues now revisited by Lustig et al. and find no reliable evidence that typical sugar consumption contributes to any disease apart from dental caries. Without evidence that reducing sugar consumption would improve public health, Lustig and colleagues' policy proposals are irrelevant.

Scientific controversies should be settled by consideration of all the available evidence, not of a seemingly biased selection. Overconsumption of anything is harmful, including of water and air.

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  1. World Sugar Research Organisation, London, UK.

    • Richard C. Cottrell

Competing financial interests

R.C.C. is an employee of the World Sugar Research Organisation, which is wholly supported by the sugar industry.

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