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How the Sugar Industry Gums Up Science

Big Sugar is lying to win a battle for your bulge.
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(Photo: carowallis1/Flickr)

(Photo: carowallis1/Flickr)

The mortal dangers of sugar are being covered up and tangled in misinformation by an industry that uses the same tactics adopted by tobacco companies and the climate change-denying fossil fuel interests.

We'll let one of the industry's own hired scientists spell out the basics of the faux dispute regarding sugar's health effects.

"[C]ontinued attempts by some public officials and purported health advocates to stigmatize sugar as 'toxic' or 'poison' are baseless and have little-to-no scientific underpinning," a Sugar Association executive wrote in an article on the Huffington Post's Healthy Living blog. The article goes on to cherry pick research to create an illusion of scientific uncertainty regarding sugar and health links. "Sadly, this hysteria is happening even though sugar is a food we have safely consumed for thousands of years."

The sad hysteria surrounding sugar is actually misinformation like this, which is spun like cotton candy by flacks, lobbyists, and hired scientists. Yes, humans have long consumed sugar, like the stuff in whole fruits. But we're not consuming it safely during the modern era of mass production. A robust body of science links modern consumption levels with diabetes, obesity, and cavities—even cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension. Most contrary evidence is funded—or entirely invented—by mendacious merchants of sweetness.


(Chart: Union of Concerned Scientists)

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently investigated the sugar industry and revealed in a new report just how much the industry suppresses science. Here are some of its strategies:


In 2003, for example, the Sugar Association threatened to convince Congress to withdraw World Health Organization funding unless the WHO pulled a report—in which experts concluded that sugars “threaten the nutritional quality of diets"—from its website.


“No!" exclaimed a trade group's website. "Sugar in the diet does not cause diabetes.”

Nestlé, Coca Cola, and other junk food companies also publish their own misleading information. One fact sheets tells parents not to limit their children's sugar intake. Doing so, it claims, would just lead kids to gorge on sugar later.


The Corn Refiners Association paid scientists to produce research that matched the trade group's position on the health effects of corn syrup. They were also paid to contact and attempt to influence scientists who had spoken out about the dangers of the sugar.


Check out the 2009 spike in lobbying spending that helped kill a federal proposal to tax sugary drinks to offset health care costs:


(Chart: Union of Concerned Scientists)

In the report, The Union calls on the U.S. surgeon general to conduct a comprehensive report on the health effects of added sugar. It also wants the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to follow through with plans to require packaging to state how much sugar was added, reforms that are being challenged by the sugar and junk food industries. And it says local, health, and federal health agencies could help through "aggressive public information campaigns to counter misinformation."