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Column: That ‘Big Sugar’ helped fund sugar research isn't as big a deal as you might think

While research funding can indicate bias, it’s the quality of the research that matters most, says nutritionist Ashley Hurley
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When it comes to evaluating research, nutritionist Ashely Hurley says look at the quality of the science first.

This week, the media has brought a lot of attention to the fact scientists at Harvard University received money from the sugar industry for research that named fat, rather than sugar, as the culprit in heart disease. 

While the public at large may be shocked and alarmed that researchers received funding from the industry that they are researching, I don’t think this will be surprising for people working in the field of nutrition.

Industry-funded research is nothing new. Anyone who has studied research methods, learned to review literature, or takes an evidence-based approach to practice should know this. We use a systematic process called “critical appraisal” to identify strengths and weaknesses of research to determine whether it is valid, reliable and applicable to the general population. 

Researchers are required to disclose their funding sources and any research funded by industry generally gets reviewed with a more critical eye. Critical appraisal is why “doing research” and “reading the internet” are not the same thing.

The negative outcomes of sugar overconsumption are also not new. While sugar is neither “toxic” nor “poison,” it is certainly pervasive and has made its way into many food products. 

Excessive intake of sugar is associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, cancer and cavities. Sugar has influenced colonization, economies and wars for centuries, so it’s no surprise to hear it is influencing research as well. 

In fact, I wrote this article about sugar for Sudbury.com almost two years ago. Big Sugar is not just a band. This industry has been found to use tactics similar to Big Tobacco.

This is a great example of why we need to shift our focus from nutrients to foods. Nutrition is complicated, but eating shouldn’t be. 

While there is much debate about specific nutrients like sugar, fat, and gluten, it is generally better understood that whole foods without added ingredients are better for your health than those that are processed and refined. 

The causes of any chronic condition are complex and multifactorial and single isolated nutrients generally aren’t to blame. We have already been recommending to prepare meals at home using fresh whole ingredients from a variety of food groups, rather than relying on processed and packaged convenience foods that have added sugar, fat and salt.

For all of these reasons, the fact the sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard won’t change my day-to-day practice. I’ll continue to critically appraise research, be skeptical where industry is involved and recommend a balanced and varied diet. 

Nothing to see here folks!

Ashley Hurley is a Registered Dietitian at City of Lakes Family Health Team in Sudbury. Do you have questions about nutrition and healthy eating? Visit www.eatrightontario.ca to email a dietitian for free!




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