Snickers maker Mars Inc. criticizes industry-funded paper on sugar

By Candice Choi ,AP

By Candice Choi NEW YORK — Mars Inc., the maker of Skittles and M&M’s, is breaking ranks with other food companies and denouncing an industry-funded paper that says global recommendations on limiting sugar are based on weak evidence.

The paper drew criticism this week because it was paid for by a group whose members include Coca-Cola, Hershey, Red Bull and Oreo cookie maker Mondelez.

Mars — which is also a member of the group, the International Life Sciences Institute — said Wednesday the paper undermines the work of public health officials and makes all industry-funded research look bad.

Company spokesman Matthias Berninger said the study, published by the Annals of Internal Medicine, creates more doubt for consumers rather than helping them make better choices.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show two Mars executives were copied on discussions about the research project last year. But Berninger said Mars was not a driving force for the paper and would make clear to ILSI from now on that it does not support such work. Conflicts of Interest The situation highlights the potential for conflicts of interest in nutrition science. Critics say the nature of nutrition research leaves the door open for companies to cherry-pick projects that make their products seem healthy, or cast doubt on science that suggests they fuel obesity.

Eric Hentges, ILSI’s executive director, said the group devised the concept for examining inconsistencies in sugar guidelines around the world. The paper clearly disclosed how it was funded, but said the authors “wrote the protocol and conducted the study independently from ILSI.” On Wednesday, the journal published a corrected version of the disclosure to state ILSI “reviewed and approved” the scope of the protocol, after the AP provided it with emails showing the group sent the authors “requested revisions” on the proposal last year.

Berninger said it was difficult to identify a universal recommended limit on sugar intake, or directly link sugar to specific health consequences. But he said even Mars realizes people consume too much sugar, and wants to help them understand how to cut back.

Despite the criticism, the paper’s underlying point takes note of a recognized issue about evidence for dietary recommendations. The U.S. government’s guidelines, for instance, have evolved over the years with science.

Bradley Johnston, a professor at the University of Toronto and co-author of the paper, said he studies how researchers come to their conclusions, and the quality of the evidence they use. He noted that the type of causal inferences that can be made between smoking and lung cancer cannot be made with sugar, and that methodologies for developing sugar guidelines could be stronger.

“We think there’s room for improvement,” he said.