For centuries, Americans ate the produce from their own farms, or their gardens, and animals they had raised themselves. Later they bought food at local shops supplied by nearby farms and ranches. Food was consumed in its natural state, without additives. Sugar was used sparingly. Then in the 1940s, the modern food industry was born. Over subsequent decades, it was not just the growth, transport and distribution of food that was affected. Our food itself began to be manufactured, to the point that most people in the United States now depend heavily on food made in factories and laced with chemical additives such as artificial coloring, preservatives, and especially, sugar.
As food companies became richer and more influential, they began to exert political influence to protect their businesses. One such political story unfolded almost fifty years ago, in the late 1960s.
At the time, few researchers were exploring the relationship between refined sugar and diseases such as arteriosclerosis or type 2 diabetes. Instead, researchers believed the major health problem associated with sugar (especially sucrose, which is made from sugar cane or sugar beets) was tooth decay.
Today, it accepted fact that sugar is implicated in dental caries. But in 1967, research was needed to gather proof. The cane and beet sugar industry quickly developed a strategy to redirect the NIDR’s research, away from reducing sugar consumption and toward reducing the damage sugar inflicted on teeth.
Based on newly uncovered sugar industry documents from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, a paper recently published in the journal PLOS Medicine describes how the International Sugar Research Foundation (today known as the Sugar Association) successfully influenced NIDR research. The Sugar Association’s own research priorities were directly incorporated into the initial 1971 request for research proposals from the government. That RFP did not ask for proposals from scientists working on determining the cavity-causing effects of sugar. The sugar industry successfully persuaded the government health authorities to divert funding from any studies that might convince people to eat less sugar.
Meanwhile, Americans have continued to consume ever greater amounts of sugar. As Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in Public Interest said in a recent commentary, American consumption of caloric sweeteners (primarily sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) rose 25 percent between 1970 and 1999. He says:
Whether more research on the cariogenicity of foods would have tempered or even reversed that trend — and reduced the prevalence of caries, obesity, and other diseases — is impossible to know.
He adds that research has “strongly implicated refined sugars, especially in beverage form, in the causation of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.” That research has also “spurred campaigns by consumer groups, the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and state health departments to rein in sugar and sugar-drink consumption.”
The question is, will those campaigns succeed this time? The sugar industry is currently attempting to persuade both American government and World Health Organization officials to pull back from their separate (but similar) recommendations that sugar consumption be limited to less than 10 percent of daily caloric intake.
Although 45 years have passed since that first victory by the sugar industry, it is an instructive story. As Jacobson and the authors of the PLOS paper point out, it provides “a stark lesson in what can happen if we are not careful about maintaining scientific integrity.”