Sugar debate: University to investigate allegations of sugary truth

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 12th February 2014

A recent broadcast by Australia’s public broadcaster ABC Radio National has led to accusations and counter-accusations of bias for and against the sugar industry.

On Sunday 9 February 2014, the ABC radio program Background Briefing highlighted the considerable controversy about a 2011 Australian academic paper that described the so-called “Australian paradox” which was that sugar consumption levels were claimed to have dropped in Australia despite obesity rates rising in the same period.

The academic paper titled “The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity have increased” was published in Nutrients, an open access human nutrition journal, in 20 April 2011. The paper was authored by Professor Jennie Brand-Miller, who is a professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Sydney and author of several books about the GI diet, and Dr Alan Barclay, who is the Chief Scientific Officer at the Glycaemic Index Foundation and Head of Research for the Australian Diabetes Council.

This paper presented a study aimed to analyse Australian trends in obesity and sugar consumption and compared these with the UK and the USA, and argued that an “Australia paradox” arose,  whereby the intake of refined sugars was declining while obesity levels rose.

The ABC’s Background Briefing program this week interviewed people who criticised the academic paper as being misleading and factually incorrect, and queried whether the use of the paper by the food industry was contrary to public health objectives.

The University of Sydney has announced the launch of an inquiry under its Research Code of Conduct into the paper. An external investigator has been appointed, to determine whether the authors have any case to answer.

Potential problems with data used

The ABC program posed challenges to the data used through the academic paper. The ABC program said that in 1999, the Australian government’s Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) stopped collecting data on Australian sugar consumption. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which had sourced information from the ABS, is said to have begun listing the previous year’s figure as the same level of consumption for the subsequent year.

Rory Robertson, a former Reserve Bank of Australia economist, expressed to the ABC his concern that this was a flaw in the data and would have skewed the results and conclusions reached by the ‘Australian Paradox’ paper.

Professor Brand-Miller responded to this by asserting the supportive data for the paper had been gathered from the ABS data which was sourced from information from sugar producers in Australia and that would include information from importers and exporters and would have included a factor for waste of food.

“It’s not a precise measure, but what it tells us about is the trend, and that’s how I used it in the ‘Australian Paradox’ paper. It was an indicator of trends, and it was steadily down,” Brand-Miller said.

When the ABS could not get the data beyond 1998, Professor Brand-Miller said it was “assumed” that other sources like the International Sugar Organisation would have provided the information for Australia. Professor Brand-Miller claimed that was “our assumption”.

The ABC program questioned the assumption by the authors.

Robertson’s own research had now shown a 30% increase in the sales of sugary soft drinks in Australia from 1994 to 2006, although the ‘Australian Paradox’ paper claimed a 10% decrease. Professor Brand-Miller responded to this stating that her paper actually was discussing a 10% decrease in sugar used in the soft drinks, however, she did note in the ABC interview that a “key word” may have been mistakenly left out of the academic paper.

Potential for conflicts of interest

Robertson was quoted by the ABC to be suggesting the potential of a conflict of interest. Professor Brand-Miller and Barclay have been involved with the GI Foundation. Robertson said “the University of Sydney does have a business relationship with the sugar industry. The University of Sydney has a glycaemic index business that exists in part to charge food companies up to $6,000 a pop to stamp particular brands of sugar and sugary foods as healthy.”

The ABC program stated that they were not alleging that the GI Foundation influenced the paper, and reported “financial documents lodged with the Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC) show that the GI Foundation has since 2009 received over $2 million in license fees from food companies, some of whom add sugars to their foods.”

Australian Food News does not make any allegations, and will continue to report on any new findings or other new aspects of this controversy.