U.S. Sugar Industry Implicated in Obesity Epidemic

The U.S. sugar industry successfully used its influence to steer federal research into the prevention of tooth decay away from the role of refined sugars in the 1970s, according to newly discovered documents.

Cane and beet sugar manufacturers, as well as candy companies, were understandably concerned at the time that a new federal research program on the prevention of dental caries would conclude that the public should consume less sugar. It certainly didn’t want that, even though it had known for at least two decades that sugar caused tooth decay.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recently found long-lost details in the archives of the University of Illinois about how the sugar industry worked 40 years ago to control the research agenda on tooth decay.

The industry adopted a strategy that tobacco companies had successfully used to derail research into the harmful effects of cigarette smoking. Much like the way the tobacco industry supported research into “safe” cigarettes, the sugar industry worked to focus attention on ways to minimize the harm from sugar as an alternative to reducing sugar consumption.

It conducted scientific reviews and funded research into interventions such as vaccines and plaque-dissolving rinses which ultimately proved to be dead ends.

And it developed cozy working relationships with government officials. Many members of a government task force on dental caries also worked for industry and served on an industry group called the International Sugar Research Foundation.

Industry’s efforts were successful. When the government released its research agenda, it mirrored almost entirely industry’s wish list and avoided looking at the cavity-causing properties of sugar. Of the hundreds of studies that were eventually funded, only one or two dealt with the role of sugar in the diet.

This history “should be a warning to the public health community,” the University of California researchers said. “The sugar industry’s current position—that public health recommendations to reduce dental caries risk should focus on sugar harm reduction as opposed to sugar restrictions—is grounded in more than 60 years of protecting industry interests.”

Fast-forward now to recent years.  Fuelled in part by the doubling of childhood and quadrupling of adolescent obesity rates in the last 30 years, research on the health effects of refined sugars has increased greatly, with the focus shifting from tooth decay to more lethal diseases.  Studies have strongly implicated refined sugars, especially in beverage form, in the causation of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

That research has spurred campaigns by consumer groups, the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and state health departments to rein in sugar and sugar-drink consumption.  Strategies have included getting sugar drinks out of schools, levying excise taxes on sugar drinks, requiring warning notices on sugar-drink containers, restricting levels of sugar in beverages, and mounting publicity campaigns.

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Those efforts (and increased sales of bottled water) have reduced per-capita consumption of carbonated sugar drinks by 25 percent and of caloric sweeteners by 15 percent since 1998.

In response to those campaigns, industry has ratcheted up its political efforts.  Most prominently, the soft-drink industry has spent over $125 million opposing local, state, and federal soda-tax proposals, prevailing everywhere but in Berkeley, CA.  (A tax of one cent per ounce would reduce sales by about 10 percent.)

The industry is also fighting two upcoming federal actions.  The US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are now doing their five-year updating of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  The government’s advisory committee of academic experts recommended that sugar consumption, especially from beverages, be limited to 10 percent of calories (current consumption is about 15 percent).  It also recommended exploring the use of “pricing” (i.e., tax) approaches to reduce consumption of sugar drinks.

If those recommendations are included in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans they will strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to include an “added sugars” line on the Nutrition Facts label.  A Dietary Guidelines recommendation of a 10 percent limit on refined sugars would also provide a basis for the FDA to set a Daily Value for refined sugars and include a “%DV” on food labels.  That could make high-sugar foods, especially beverages, look like poor nutritional choices.

The sugar and soft-drink industries are already opposing these federal actions.  The Sugar Association and American Beverage Association filed voluminous comments with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee challenging the tentative finding about sugars’ and sugar drinks’ contributions to chronic diseases.  The sugar group charged, for instance, that the committee’s conclusions were “opinion-based” and not “science-based.”  Industry lawyers have even contended that including “added sugars” on nutrition labels would be unconstitutional.

If those tactics are more visible than those employed during the 1970s to derail dental caries research, rest assured that industry will also be working behind-the-scenes inside the halls of government just as hard as it did 40 years ago.

The American Heart Association recommends these daily limits for added sugar: 100 calories’ worth (6 teaspoons) for women and 150 calories’ worth (9 teaspoons) for men.

 The full text of the article is available here:

Kearns CE, Glantz SA, and Schmidt LA.Sugar Industry Influence on the Scientific Agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research’s 1971 National Caries Program: A Historical Analysis of Internal Documents. PLoS Med. 2015 Mar 10;12(3):e1001798.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001798.


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