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University of California–San Francisco researcher Cristin Kearns dropped a promising career at the Kaiser Foundation to dig through sugar industry archives for a smoking gun. Francie Diep reports on how Kearns, with help from the man who brought down Big Tobacco, is now proving that Big Sugar steered scientists away from looking at the ingredient’s harmful effects.

Diep's Pacific Standard feature story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Monday, January 18. Until then, an excerpt:

For Cristin Kearns, it happened like all great Google finds: late at night, after clicking through every link on 10 pages of search results. That’s when she first saw the name of famed nutritionist Ancel Keys inside an unlikely book, Zoology Reprints and Separata, etc., Vol. 166.

Zoology Reprints is one of the tens of millions of books Google has scanned, uploaded to the Internet, and made word-searchable. The volume’s contents are varied and obscure. There’s a list of tree species living in forests in the United States; a course catalog for Sul Ross State Teachers College in Texas; and a number of sugar-company pamphlets from the 1940s, including “Sugar Is the Foundation of All Life” and “Some Facts About the Sugar Research Foundation, Inc. and its Prize Award Program.”

It was in the latter that Kearns learned that trade associations for sugar manufacturers even existed, and that they funded research. From there, she found library catalog listings of other papers, hidden in plain sight in university collections. Kearns has been using these papers to determine how corporations influenced American research on sugar’s adverse health effects.

One of her more fruitful finds was the correspondence of Roger Adams, a professor emeritus of organic chemistry at the University of Illinois and an advisory board member for the Sugar Research Foundation. When he died, Adams left the university his letters, including memos and reports he had exchanged with the Sugar Research Foundation. Based on those documents, Kearns published a study in PLoS Medicine last year showing that the foundation and other groups attempted to deflect federal researchers’ interest away from studying how to decrease Americans’ consumption of sugar to prevent cavities. The groups—supported by fees from cane- and beet-sugar manufacturers—funded research into improbable alternatives to consuming less sugar, including a vaccine against cavities. The International Sugar Research Foundation, the successor to the Sugar Research Foundation, invited federal scientists to serve on a panel during the same month the scientists were deciding what dental studies the government should fund. Afterward, the foundation sent research recommendations to what was then called the National Institute of Dental Research, downplaying the importance of eating less sugar to remaining cavity-free. Kearns found that the National Institute of Dental Research took 78 percent of the sugar groups’ recommendations.


Lead Photo: (Photo: Helena Price)

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