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How Sugar Lobbying Influenced U.S. Government-Funded Research

A new analysis of sugar-industry documents finds companies worked with U.S. government researchers to soften recommendations against eating too much sugar.
A sugar factory in Billings, Montana. (Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr)

A sugar factory in Billings, Montana. (Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr)

In 2007, a doctor handed Cristin Kearns a pamphlet about working with patients with diabetes. The pamphlet offered plenty of dietary advice, but seemed to be missing a major piece.

“It was, ‘Increase fiber, reduce fat, reduce salt, reduce calories’ and it didn’t say anything about reducing sugar,” says Kearns, who holds joint appointments in the University of California-San Francisco’s departments of public health and dentistry. “It made me wonder if the sugar industry affected diet recommendations.”

That evening, she started scouring the Internet, determined to learn more about sugar industry groups. One thing led to another—at one point, she got ahold of papers from a sugar company that went out of business. Today, she and her colleagues have amassed 1,551 pages' worth of letters, reports, and memos written by staffers and advisors at groups such as the World Sugar Research Organization. After analyzing those documents, Kearns and her team found that cane and beet sugar industry groups indeed do have an effect on federally funded research. In the 1960s and 1970s, sugar-industry influence kept a national research program from studying whether Americans should eat less sugar to avoid cavities. The team is publishing its results today in the journal PLoS Medicine.

“So what they did was they began to fund research to create a deflection strategy."

Sugar organizations couldn’t hide the scientific evidence that sugar causes tooth decay, according to Kearns. “So what they did was they began to fund research to create a deflection strategy to say, ‘You don’t need to restrict sugar. We can create enzymes we can add to food, or we’ll find a tooth-decay vaccine,’” she says. Neither the enzyme food additive nor the vaccine ever came to fruition.

The strategy has parallels with how the tobacco industry funded research to create artificial doubt about whether smoking caused lung cancer. Such strategies were revealed, in great part, by tobacco-industry documents that another University of California-San Francisco researcher, Stanton Glantz, analyzed during the 1990s. Revelations from Glantz’s “Cigarette Papers” provided the United States government ammunition to sue tobacco companies for racketeering. Glantz's research also gave scientific journals cause to ban industry-funded papers from their pages.

Kearns hopes her sugar papers, which Glantz also worked on as a researcher, will affect policy, too. “For instance, the WHO [World Health Organization] no longer lets the tobacco industry participate in policy discussion. That is not yet in place for food industry-related interaction,” Kearns says. “I hope these types of papers will have an impact on that.”

Cavities may be a bit less serious in consequence than lung cancer, but, Kearns says, "just because it's not the number-one killer doesn't mean people's quality of life couldn't be improved."

Meanwhile, sugar industry lobbying is still at work today. The United States’ Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee currently wants to recommend a cap for added sugars in people's diets. The recommended limit would show up on nutrition labels, much like limits for fat and sodium. The Sugar Association opposes such a cap, saying there’s not enough science to support it. Last week, the World Health Organization announced that it was recommending a similar upper limit for added sugars. The organization had initially wanted to make that recommendation in 2003, but backed down under pressure from sugar organizations, according to a 2005 report in the Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition.

Next, Kearns plans to re-analyze the papers to see whether sugar organizations obscured science that would have demonstrated that eating too much sugar causes diabetes and heart disease. Scientifically speaking, there still isn't smoking-gun evidence for those sugar-related ills. So Kearns will be checking whether the industry deliberately kept the issue controversial. The analysis will be a more thorough and systematic version of the report she produced with Mother Jones in 2012.

After an anonymous source mailed Glantz the Cigarette Papers in 1994, he built a decades-long career on discovering new secrets in tobacco-industry documents, millions of pages of which are now publicly available. I asked Kearns if she foresees doing the same with sugar industry papers. “I hope to,” she says. “There’s certainly enough to look forward to.”