Background: Fructose providing excess calories in the form of sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) increases markers of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Whether this effect holds for other important food sources of fructose-containing sugars is unclear. To investigate the role of food source and energy, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials of the effect of fructose-containing sugars by food source at different levels of energy control on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) markers. Methods and Findings: MEDLINE, Embase, and the Cochrane Library were searched through 7 January 2022 for controlled trials ≥7-days. Four trial designs were prespecified: substitution (energy-matched substitution of sugars for other macronutrients); addition (excess energy from sugars added to diets); subtraction (excess energy from sugars subtracted from diets); and ad libitum (energy from sugars freely replaced by other macronutrients). The primary outcome was intrahepatocellular lipid (IHCL). Secondary outcomes were alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST). Independent reviewers extracted data and assessed risk of bias. The certainty of evidence was assessed using GRADE. We included 51 trials (75 trial comparisons, n = 2059) of 10 food sources (sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs); sweetened dairy alternative; 100% fruit juice; fruit; dried fruit; mixed fruit sources; sweets and desserts; added nutritive sweetener; honey; and mixed sources (with SSBs)) in predominantly healthy mixed weight or overweight/obese younger adults. Total fructose-containing sugars increased IHCL (standardized mean difference = 1.72 [95% CI, 1.08 to 2.36], p < 0.001) in addition trials and decreased AST in subtraction trials with no effect on any outcome in substitution or ad libitum trials. There was evidence of influence by food source with SSBs increasing IHCL and ALT in addition trials and mixed sources (with SSBs) decreasing AST in subtraction trials. The certainty of evidence was high for the effect on IHCL and moderate for the effect on ALT for SSBs in addition trials, low for the effect on AST for the removal of energy from mixed sources (with SSBs) in subtraction trials, and generally low to moderate for all other comparisons. Conclusions: Energy control and food source appear to mediate the effect of fructose-containing sugars on NAFLD markers. The evidence provides a good indication that the addition of excess energy from SSBs leads to large increases in liver fat and small important increases in ALT while there is less of an indication that the removal of energy from mixed sources (with SSBs) leads to moderate reductions in AST. Varying uncertainty remains for the lack of effect of other important food sources of fructose-containing sugars at different levels of energy control.
Keywords: alanine aminotransferase; aspartate aminotransferase; intrahepatocellular lipid; non-alcoholic fatty liver disease; sugar-sweetened beverages; sugars.