An effort to get an increasingly flabby world to stop eating so much sugar ran head-on into the U.S. sugar lobby, which claims the dangers of the sweet stuff are being overstated.
People should get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from sugar and other high-calorie sweeteners, the World Health Organization will recommend in a report on Wednesday.
That guideline is among several in WHO's attempt at a global strategy on health aimed at preventing such threats as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. It was immediately attacked by the Sugar Association, which represents U.S. growers and refiners.
"Taxpayers' dollars should not be used to support misguided, non-science-based reports which do not add to the health and well-being of Americans, much less the rest of the world," Sugar Association chief Andrew Briscoe wrote the director general of WHO.
Briscoe said his group "will exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature" of the report, "including asking Congress to challenge future funding of the United States' $406 million contribution to the WHO."
Briscoe cited a far more lenient U.S. study on sugar — one by the National Academy of Sciences in September that found no conclusive evidence people suffered nutritionally until their sugar intake exceeded 25 percent of daily calories.
"They completely ignored this key report," Briscoe said.
Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, said the panel did consider the Academy of Sciences report, along with scores of others. The draft was discussed extensively at international nutrition conferences, he said.
"It went out not only to explicit peer reviewers but, for the first time, it was posted on the Web. In fact, it's gone through a bigger peer review than any other WHO report ever," he said. "That was done because it was recognized to be controversial from an industry point of view."
It is precisely because the WHO is a global agency distanced from elections and the need for campaign funds that it was able to take such a strong stand on sugar, James said.
Half of adults in Europe and 61 percent in the United States are overweight, and the epidemic is spreading around the globe as Western lifestyles infiltrate new areas, experts say.
Many governments, including the United States, have no specific guidelines on sugar consumption, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson steered clear of the debate Tuesday.
He did not respond to appeals that he try to intervene before Wednesday's official launch of the WHO report. One request was March 20 from a coalition of food industry groups, another March 28 from two U.S. senators, John Breaux, D-La., Larry Craig, R-Idaho. They also wrote Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman asking that she urge WHO to cease further promotion of the report. Breaux and Craig are co-chairs of the U.S. Senate Sweetener Caucus.
On Tuesday, HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said the department is reviewing the report and had not yet concluded whether the sugar standards were appropriate. Overall, Pierce said, HHS supports efforts to reduce obesity.
"A fundamental part of that is healthy choices in your diet and exercise," he said. The USDA also had no response to the senators' letter.
Even if the sugar industry succeeded in getting U.S. funding pulled it would not likely change the course, James said, noting the U.S. failure to pay the United Nations for many years. "It would be quite extraordinary and new for WHO to give in to that pressure."
He said the sugar lobby's behavior will cause it to be labeled, like tobacco, as anti-health.
"They've learned very well from the tobacco industry how to confuse and diffuse the field," James said. "By objecting to this instead of considering how best to adapt to it, they are now being clearly labeled as anti-health and being willing to manipulate to preserve their efforts."
Briscoe, the Sugar Association chief, said the industry also objects to the report because of possible economic ramifications.
"There are 192 members of the World Health Organization — 165 of those produce sugar and a lot of those are developing countries. Until there's an economic analysis done, I think it would be inappropriate to move this report into the public arena," Briscoe said.