A number of recent investigations have revealed a significant truth: The sugar industry has long known that sugar consumption triggers poor health, but hid the incriminating data, much like the tobacco industry hid the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer. The most recent of these investigations, based on unearthed historical documents, found the sugar industry buried evidence from the 1960s that linked sugar consumption to heart disease and cancer.
The research didn’t see the light of day again until Cristin E. Kearns, assistant professor at UCSF School of Dentistry, discovered caches of internal industry documents stashed in the archives at several universities. The unearthing of these documents has resulted in three separate papers showing how the industry has systematically misled the public and public health officials about the dangers of sugar.
Emails obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests have also revealed Coca-Cola’s corporate plan to counter dietary warnings against soda consumption — tactics that include reshaping existing data and creating new studies, working with scientific organizations and influencing policymakers. All in all, the evidence clearly reveals that the food industry has but one chief aim, and that is to make money, no matter what the cost to human health.
Sugar Industry Influenced Dietary Recommendations
In 2016, Kearns and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, detailing the sugar industry’s influence on dietary recommendations. In it, they revealed how the industry has spent decades manipulating, molding and guiding nutritional research to exonerate sugar and shift the blame to saturated fat instead. As reported by The New York Times:
“The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease.
The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat. Even though the influence-peddling revealed in the documents dates back nearly 50 years, more recent reports show that the food industry has continued to influence nutrition science.”
Kearns also partnered with science journalist and author Gary Taubes to write the exposé “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” In it, the pair notes that one of the primary strategies used by the industry has been to simply shed doubt on studies suggesting sugar is harmful. This stalling tactic, where more research is called for before a conclusion is made, has worked like a charm for five decades. Industry-funded scientists who served on federal panels also made sure the panels relied on industry-funded studies that exonerated sugar.
Industry Buried Research Linking Sugar to Heart Disease and Cancer
The latest paper based on the historical documents Kearns unearthed was published in PLOS Biology on November 21. Here, Kearns and colleagues focus on industry research linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer, and how and why this research was ultimately buried. In 1968, the Sugar Research Foundation, which later became the Sugar Association, funded an animal project to determine sugar’s impact on heart health.
Considering what we know today, it’s no surprise to learn the study showed that sugar promotes heart disease. However, the mechanism of action suggested sugar might also cause bladder cancer. At that point, the study was shut down. The results were never published. Co-author Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UCSF, told The New York Times this latest report continues “to build the case that the sugar industry has a long history of manipulating science.”
In a public statement, the Sugar Association rejected the report, calling it “a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.” According to the association, which confirmed the existence of the study, the research was shut down not because of adverse results, but because of delays that made it go over budget.
Industry Maintains Sugar Is Part of ‘Balanced’ Lifestyle
The Sugar Association also boldly proclaims that, “We know that sugar consumed in moderation is part of a balanced lifestyle …” But is it really though? And what is a “balanced” lifestyle anyway? Half poison, half healthy nutrition? I don’t know about you, but to me that’s not a prescription for a healthy lifestyle. That’s like saying that smoking in moderation is part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle — a claim few would fall for these days.
Here’s just one recent example of what that kind of “balanced” lifestyle achieves. UCSF researchers concluded children who drink sugary beverages have shorter than average telomeres, which is associated with higher risk of chronic disease and reduced life span. According to the author:
“Even at relatively low levels of sugared-beverage consumption, we found that how often these young children drank sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with telomere length, mirroring the relationship that has been found in some studies of adults.”
Big Sugar, Big Tobacco
The 1960s sugar industry campaign aimed at countering “negative attitudes toward sugar” by funding studies showing favorable results was led by John Hickson, a Sugar Association executive who went on to work for the Cigar Research Council. As noted in The New York Times:
“As part of the sugar industry campaign, Mr. Hickson secretly paid two influential Harvard scientists to publish a major review paper in 1967 that minimized the link between sugar and heart health and shifted blame to saturated fat … Hickson left the sugar industry in the early 1970s to work for the Cigar Research Council, a tobacco industry organization.
In 1972, an internal tobacco industry memo on Mr. Hickson noted that he had a reputation for manipulating science to achieve his goals. The confidential tobacco memo described Mr. Hickson as ‘a supreme scientific politician who had been successful in condemning cyclamates, on behalf of the Sugar Research Council, on somewhat shaky evidence.’”
While the Sugar Association claims it “has embraced scientific research … to learn as much as possible about sugar, diet and health,” and “will always advocate for and respect any comprehensive, peer-reviewed scientific research that provides insights,” in the real world, the industry has consistently condemned or downplayed evidence of harm, despite the overwhelming amount of such evidence.
Once you know how the game is played, you start seeing pages from the game book in action everywhere you look. Case in point: While concerns about obesity grow, Coca-Cola is now shifting its corporate health initiative from the failed promotion of exercise, back to the solidly refuted idea that “all calories count” and that you can manage your weight by counting of calories. Both of these strategies conveniently circumvent the truth that drinking less soda, or none at all, will improve your health, even if you do nothing else.
The fact is, you cannot compare calories from an avocado and calories from soda, and reducing intake of nutritious food to squeeze in sugary beverages while maintaining a certain calorie count is not going to do your health any favors. Soda companies are also eyeing new markets where soda consumption is low, now that Western consumers are starting to catch on to the fact that sugar is a major driver of obesity and ill health. This includes China, India, and Mexico.
Failure to Publish Project 259 Hid Carcinogenic Potential
While Hickson was still working for the Sugar Association, studies emerged suggesting sugar calories were more detrimental to health than calories from starchy carbs like grains and potatoes. He suspected this effect might be related to the way gut microbes metabolize sugar and other carbs. To investigate this link, the association launched Project 259, to assess how animals lacking gut bacteria would respond to sugar and starches, compared to animals with normal microbiomes.
The research was led by WFR Pover, a researcher at the University of Birmingham in the U.K, who was paid the equivalent of $187,000 in today’s currency to perform the study. The initial results, detailed in a 1969 internal report, showed that rats fed sucrose produced high levels of beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme associated with both arterial hardening and bladder cancer. According to the internal report, “This is one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats.”
Pover also found that sucrose had an adverse effect on cholesterol and triglycerides, and that, indeed, this was the work of gut bacteria. While animal research carries less weight today than it did back then, federal law at the time banned food additives shown to cause cancer in animals. This means that, had this research been published rather than buried, it could have had very serious ramifications for the sugar industry. As noted in Kearns’ paper:
“The sugar industry did not disclose evidence of harm from animal studies that would have (1) strengthened the case that the CHD [cardiovascular heart disease] risk of sucrose is greater than starch and (2) caused sucrose to be scrutinized as a potential carcinogen.”
Sugar Industry Influenced Dental Policy as Well
A third report based on Kearns cache of historical records reveal the sugar industry also played a significant role in the creation of dental policy. As a result of this collusion, dental policy not only downplays the impact that sugar and processed junk food has on dental health, it also ignores the toxic nature of fluoride.
Just like it defended sugar in food by shifting the blame onto dietary fats, the sugar industry made sure sugar did not become a concern within dentistry by shifting the focus onto the need for fluoride. According to this paper, published in PLOS Medicine in 2015, the sugar industry’s interactions with the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) significantly altered and shaped the priorities of the National Caries Program (NCP), launched in 1971 to identify interventions that would eradicate tooth decay.
As noted in the paper, “The sugar industry could not deny the role of sucrose in dental caries given the scientific evidence. They, therefore, adopted a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumption rather than restricting intake.” This industry-led deflection strategy included:
- Funding research on enzymes to break up dental plaque, in collaboration with allies in the food industry
- Funding research into a highly questionable vaccine against tooth decay. Another failed research goal included developing a powder or agent that could be mixed or taken with sugary foods to lessen the destruction to teeth caused by the Streptococcus mutans bacterium
- Forming a task force with the aim to influence leaders in the NIDR (nine of the 11 members of the NIDR’s Caries Task Force Steering Committee, charged with identifying the NIDR’s research priorities, also served on the International Sugar Research Foundation’s Panel of Dental Caries Task Force)
- Submitting a report to the NIDR, which served as the foundation for the initial proposal request issued for the NCP
Industry Derailed Research That Might Have Led to Sugar Regulations
Omitted from the NCP’s priorities was any research that might be detrimental to the sugar industry, meaning research investigating the role and impact of sugar on dental health. Here, as with Project 259, “The sugar industry was able to derail some promising research that probably would’ve been the foundation for regulation of sugar in food,” co-author Glantz said.
Even today, Big Sugar is being evasive about fessing up the truth, despite overwhelming evidence showing that excessive sugar consumption — which is part and parcel of a processed food diet — is a key driver of dental cavities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people across the U.S. and Europe need to cut their sugar consumption in half in order to reduce their risk of tooth decay and obesity.
WHO’s guidelines call for reducing sugar consumption to 10 percent of daily calories or less, which equates to about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar for adults. Ideally, the WHO says, your intake should be below 5 percent, which is more in line with my own recommendations.
Sugar Labeling Is Long Overdue
We probably will not see sugar being removed from the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list anytime soon, even though a reassessment would probably be warranted, considering the evidence. Still, there is some good news. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized its new Nutrition Facts rules in May 2016, and once the changes take effect, food manufacturers will be required to list added sugars in grams and as percent daily value (based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet) on their nutrition facts labels.
By listing the percentage of daily value for sugar on nutritional labels, it will be easier to identify high-sugar foods, and could help rein in overconsumption caused by “hidden” sugars. Unfortunately, we won’t see these changes until January 1, 2020. Manufacturers with annual sales below $10 million will have one additional year to comply.
Sugar Industry Has Lost All Scientific Credibility
Large sums of money have been spent, and scientific integrity has been tossed by the wayside, to convince you that added sugars are a “staple” nutrient that belongs in your diet, and that health problems like obesity, chronic disease and dental caries are due to some other issue — be it lack of exercise, too much saturated fat, or lack of fluoride.
Clearly, the sugar industry’s ability to influence policy for public health and research put us decades behind the eight-ball, as it were. It’s really time to set the record straight, and to stop looking to the industry as a credible source of information about sugar.
To learn more about how sugar affects your health, check out SugarScience.org, created by scientists at three American universities to counter the propaganda provided by profit-driven industry interests. This educational website provides access to independent research that is unsoiled by industry interference. This kind of research really is key, and anyone who believes industry-funded research is as trustworthy is deluding themselves.
Case in point: A report published in PLOS Medicine in December 2013 looked at how financial interests influence outcomes in trials aimed to determine the relationship between sugar consumption and obesity. The report concluded that studies with financial ties to industry were FIVE TIMES more likely to present a conclusion of “no positive association” between sugar and obesity, compared to those without such ties.