Critic of artificial sweeteners pilloried by industry-backed scientists

Susan Swithers is no stranger to food industry criticism.

In fact, the Purdue University professor anticipates a swift public relations blitz from trade groups representing diet- and low-calorie food companies every time she publishes a study about the health effects of artificial sweeteners.

“They reflexively put out a press release that spins it as, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the study,’” says Swithers, a professor of behavioral neuroscience who has been researching artificial sweeteners for the past decade. “I’m sure I’m on somebody’s Google Alert at this point.”

Still, even Swithers was surprised by the way in which the diet food industry attacked a paper she published last summer that raised health concerns about popular sugar substitutes used in snack foods and diet drinks. In her widely publicized work, published as an opinion article in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, Swithers reviewed recent studies on artificial sweeteners and concluded that people who frequently consume sugar substitutes “may … be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

Seizing on the “opinion” tag, the food and beverage industry responded quickly. The American Beverage Association, for example, dismissed the paper’s findings, arguing that it was “not a scientific study.”

But perhaps the strongest, most wide-ranging attacks came from the Calorie Control Council, a lesser-known industry group with an innocuous-sounding name, a long history and a penchant for stealthy public relations tactics. The organization, which is run by an account executive with a global management and public relations firm, represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry. But it functions more like an industry front group than a trade association.

In criticizing Swithers, the Council relied on industry-funded scientists, bloggers and dietitians — it even wrote a letter to the professor’s university demanding that the school stop promoting “biased science.”

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.