BIG SUGAR'S FIGHT AGAINST SCIENCE AT THE EXPENSE OF PUBLIC HEALTH
Updated: Mar 28, 2019
In the summer of 1969, Dr. Richard Greulich, the scientific director of the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR), stood in front of a Sugar Industry Research Foundation (SIRF) sponsored symposium to discuss how to eliminate tooth decay and assured his audience it wouldn’t have anything to do with reducing sugar consumption. He echoed Big Sugar’s concerns on how it would be a waste of time to focus on reducing sugar from the American diet, downplayed sugar’s role in enamel breakdown and outlined their unorthodox strategies to eradicate cavities within one decade.
“One could say, on logical grounds and good evidence, that if we could eliminate the consumption of sucrose, we could eliminate the problem—because we would be denying these pathogens their primary source of nutrient,” Greulich said during his presentation. “We are realists, however, and we recognize the value of sucrose to nutrition.”
Newly-discovered archives dating back to 1959 reveal Big Sugar’s early role in government regulation, and research lays out a story of questionable scientific integrity. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, pored over 319 internal industry documents from the NIDR National Caries Program, and uncovered years of sugar-laden leverage. One of the many alarming findings of what are some are now calling the “sugar papers” was Greulich’s willingness to please the researchers at the sugar industry by making assurances that NIDR’s research was in no way going to threaten sugar consumption.
“I reiterate that the role of sucrose [in cavities] is undeniable, yet there is very little that anyone would want to do about this other than explore some of these possible dietary modifications,” Greulich said.
The papers show that SIRF systematically redirected the cavity program’s research funds to make certain they focused on searching for alternative interventions in order to ensure people they could continue eating sugar without harming their enamel. It went as far as funneling more than $8 million in research funds toward “Project 269,” an unsuccessful attempt at developing a vaccine for tooth decay, among other interventions such as sprinkling plaque-killing enzymes into food and drink, the report said. The moves by SIRF indicate they were able to convince one of the most important U.S. health regulators to shine their spotlight on surrogate solutions, leaving sugar’s obvious role in cavities in the dark.
“Receiving money from places such as the sugar industry plays a part in the direction the research takes on. Large dental corporations that are paying millions for studies want the research to show their product in a positive light. As a dentist, you are continually taught not to trust studies done by large companies,” Dr. Dean Chencharik, a Somerset, New Jersey-based dentist at the Art of Dentistry and Spa, told IBTimes.
“It’s like a magic trick. If you watch the hand doing the trick, you’ll be too distracted and miss the other hand that’s making the money.”
Cans of soda are displayed in a case at Kwik Stops Liquor in San Diego, California February 13, 2014. REUTERS
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than half of children and teens already have cavities in their adult teeth. In addition to largely preventable tooth decay, sugar consumption is linked to some serious health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and liver disease.
It’s ubiquitous in our grocery stores, sprinkled in 74 percent of packaged foods and coded in 61 different names on the back of food labels. It’s laced into foods you’d never think of such as ketchup, salad dressing and cereals. Then of course there’s the sugar found in soda, juice and sports drinks, which has become the largest source of added sugar in the American diet.
And despite the known health consequences, the average American’s consumption of added sugar persists at levels far exceeding the recommended 22 to 28 teaspoons a day. We consume the stuff to the tune of approximately 500 extra calories a day, and a grand total of 66 pounds of sugar every year.
Two years ago, Center for Science In the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to set limits on the sugar in beverages and undertake a public information campaign to encourage people to eat foods without added sugars, such as fruits, vegetables and dairy. It argued current levels of sugar consumption were not safe, bringing in scientific studies and even quoting the federal government itself: “As recognized nearly a decade ago by the then-Acting Commissioner of FDA, America suffers from an ‘epidemic of overweight and obesity,’ which in turn ‘increase[s] the risk for coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers.’ Numerous authorities, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, have concluded in recent years that over-consumption of added sugars contributes importantly to overweight obesity and to the many obesity-related health problems and have advised consumers to reduce their consumption of those sugars.”
The CSPI then encouraged companies to voluntarily reduce sugars in their products.
“Those three things would dramatically reduce sugar consumption and greatly reduce the impact of sugar on high fructose corn sugar,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, whose guest comments were published in PLoS Medicine along with the recently discovered “sugar papers.” “That petition is still sitting at the FDA, they haven’t acted on it. But that’s really the strategy the government should use; needless to say the soda industry and the corn refiners would go berserk if the FDA actually proposed it,” Jacobson said.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, outlining the importance of eating less saturated fat, salt and not surprisingly, sugar. According to the Committee’s 571 page report, there is “moderate to strong evidence” that high consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages are detrimental to public health, and have contributed to the fact that approximately half of American adults have preventable chronic diseases linked to a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. There was immediate outrage from the sugar and soda industries.
“The Committee’s conclusions on ‘added sugars’ intake are not based on the established evidence-based review process of the full body of science, which raises serious concerns the Committee bypassed this process and hand-picked science to support their pre-determined conclusions,” the Sugar Association said a statement. “Such an approach suggests that these conclusions were ‘opinion-based’ and not ‘science-based.’ We maintain that all-natural sugar is an important ingredient that has been safely used for thousands of years. Sugar consumed in moderation—a level between restriction and indulgence—is an important part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle.”
Added the American Beverage Association in its own statement : “When it comes to sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages, the Committee did not consider the body of science. Numerous studies have shown that restricting one food or food group is not the best approach for achieving calorie balance or maintaining a healthy weight…As with any other source of calories, sugar-sweetened beverages can be part of an overall diet. ”
The statement, says Jacobson, is “namby pamby.” He adds that “of course they want people to consume as much as possible. What’s this moderation bullshit?”
But, Jacobson said the good news is that in recent years, Big Sugar has started to struggle to defend itself against growing charges of damage to the overall public health: more schools are exchanging soda vending machines for water, energy drink bans are reaching playgrounds and parks, and parents are becoming privy to sugar’s dangers.
“People are consuming 10 to 15 percent less sugar now than 15 years ago and that’s due to reduced consumption of carbonated sugar drink consumption, soft drinks and energy drinks. I think we’re making some progress.,” Jacobson said. “ Some real government action would accelerate the declining sugar consumption and the rates of obesity. I think we’d see some improvements relatively quickly if the FDA wants to protect the public’s health.”