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Big Sugar Buried Evidence to Hide Sugar Harms

A number of recent investigations have revealed a significant truth: The sugar industry has long known that sugar consumption triggers poor health, but hid the incriminating data, much like the tobacco industry hid the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer. The most recent of these investigations, based on unearthed historical documents, found the sugar industry buried evidence from the 1960s that linked sugar consumption to heart disease and cancer.

The research didn’t see the light of day again until Cristin E. Kearns, assistant professor at UCSF School of Dentistry, discovered caches of internal industry documents stashed in the archives at several universities. The unearthing of these documents has resulted in three separate papers showing how the industry has systematically misled the public and public health officials about the dangers of sugar.

Emails obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests have also revealed Coca-Cola’s corporate plan to counter dietary warnings against soda consumption — tactics that include reshaping existing data and creating new studies, working with scientific organizations and influencing policymakers.1 All in all, the evidence clearly reveals that the food industry has but one chief aim, and that is to make money, no matter what the cost to human health.

Sugar Industry Influenced Dietary Recommendations

In 2016, Kearns and colleagues published a paper2 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, detailing the sugar industry’s influence on dietary recommendations. In it, they revealed how the industry has spent decades manipulating, molding and guiding nutritional research to exonerate sugar and shift the blame to saturated fat instead. As reported by The New York Times:3

“The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease.

The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article,4 which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat. Even though the influence-peddling revealed in the documents dates back nearly 50 years, more recent reports show that the food industry has continued to influence nutrition science.”

Kearns also partnered with science journalist and author Gary Taubes to write the exposé “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.”5 In it, the pair notes that one of the primary strategies used by the industry has been to simply shed doubt on studies suggesting sugar is harmful. This stalling tactic, where more research is called for before a conclusion is made, has worked like a charm for five decades. Industry-funded scientists who served on federal panels also made sure the panels relied on industry-funded studies that exonerated sugar.

Industry Buried Research Linking Sugar to Heart Disease and Cancer

The latest paper6,7,8 based on the historical documents Kearns unearthed was published in PLOS Biology on November 21. Here, Kearns and colleagues focus on industry research linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer, and how and why this research was ultimately buried. In 1968, the Sugar Research Foundation, which later became the Sugar Association, funded an animal project to determine sugar’s impact on heart health.

Considering what we know today, it’s no surprise to learn the study showed that sugar promotes heart disease. However, the mechanism of action suggested sugar might also cause bladder cancer. At that point, the study was shut down. The results were never published. Co-author Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UCSF, told The New York Times9 this latest report continues “to build the case that the sugar industry has a long history of manipulating science.”

In a public statement,10 the Sugar Association rejected the report, calling it “a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.” According to the association, which confirmed the existence of the study, the research was shut down not because of adverse results, but because of delays that made it go over budget.

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