Big Sugar’s Sour Past


Research released in February uncovered the influence of the sugar industry over science and public policy in the U.K. New research is uncovering the same situation in the U.S. A report out of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) shows that while the national plan on fighting tooth decay was being written by the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) in the late ‘60s, sugar industry lobbyists were closely influencing their decisions.

One of the simplest ways to prevent cavities is to reduce sugar intake. According to the UCSF researchers, who analyzed over 300 internal documents from sugar industry trade groups, the sugar industry has been working hard to distract the public from the truth—and the NIDR has known this for over 60 years:

Their analysis indicates that, as early as 1950, sugar industry trade organizations had accepted that sugar damaged teeth and had recognized that the dental community favored restricting sugar intake as a key way to control calories. The sugar industry therefore adopted a strategy to deflect attention towards public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumption. This strategy included tactics such as funding research into enzymes that break up dental plaque and into a vaccine against tooth decay, and cultivating relationships with the NIDR leadership."

Alexandra Sifferlin of Time gives a good synopsis of the report. In the early ‘70s the NIDR created the National Caries Program (NCP) (“caries” is essentially tooth decay) to help tackle the increasing problem of tooth decay. The program gave no focus to sugar consumption. Why? During that same period of time, the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF) was formed by the sugar industry to do their own private research.  This report worked its way into the NCP, in some places verbatim. Sifferlin summarizes:

In late 1969, the ISRF submitted its findings to the NIDR tooth decay task force, and the authors of the PLOS Medicine report show that 40% of the report’s content was taken, nearly word-for-word, from the sugar industry report."

There was significant overlap of individuals who once worked for the NIDP who then worked for the ISRF. In her article Sifferlin quotes a Sugar Association statement which questions the relevance of 40-plus-year-old decisions given the state of knowledge about tooth decay and sugar consumption now.  This is a valid point, but as Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of Science in the Public Interest points out in a blog post on Plos One, not much may have changed.  The sugar industry is still actively opposing federal policy that would limit sugar consumption to improve the health of Americans. WIth over $125 million to oppose soda tax laws, and attacks on the latest Dietary Guidelines for American Recommendations, Jacobsen suggest that Big Sugar is still flexing a lot of muscle with nutrition policy creation:

If those tactics are more visible than those chronicled by Kearns, et al., rest assured that industry will also be working behind-the-scenes inside the halls of government just as hard as 40 years ago."


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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