Most people born before 1980 remember the era of “guiltless smoking.” It was a time of blissful ignorance when the effects of smoking tobacco were unknown and therefore weren’t feared.
This was of course until the adverse health effects became undeniable, and it became asinine NOT to fear the long-term effects of tobacco use. Those that kick the habit are usually shocked to learn what happens to your body when you stop smoking.
Around the same time, in the 1960’s, dieticians were just beginning to understand the correlation between diet and risk of heart disease. And there was a debate about the role of fats and the role of sugar.
In an effort to influence the debate, the sugar industry campaigned and put their PR spin on the research. “What the sugar industry successively did,” argues Stanton Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco, “is they shifted all of the blame onto fats.”
The industry’s strategies were sophisticated and were similar to those used by the tobacco industry, Glantz said. For instance, in 1965 an industry group, the Sugar Research Foundation, secretly funded a scientific review that downplayed the evidence that linked sugar consumption to blood fat levels. The review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Now, previously unreleased details of the investigation published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology have revealed that the industry-funded its own research project, but never disclosed the findings.
Glantz and his collaborators, including Cristin Kearns, an assistant professor at UCSF, evaluated a bunch of sugar industry internal documents. Here’s what they found:
Back in 1968, the Sugar Research Foundation, a predecessor to the International Sugar Research Foundation, paid a researcher to lead a study with lab animals.
Initial results showed that a high-sugar diet increased the animals’ triglyceride levels, a type of fat in the blood, through effects on the gut bacteria. In people, high triglycerides can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The study also found that animals fed sugar had higher levels of an enzyme associated with bladder cancer in their urine.
The study was cut short before it was completed. Glantz says the researcher asked for more time to continue the study, but the Sugar Research Foundation pulled the plug on the project.
The Sugar Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that has organizational ties to the Sugar Research Foundation, released a statement on this new investigation.
“The study in question ended for three reasons, none of which involved potential research findings,” the association says. The statement goes on to explain that the study was over budget and delayed. “The delay overlapped with an organizational restructuring with the Sugar Research Foundation becoming a new entity, the International Sugar Research Foundation,” the statement says.
The trade group says sugar consumed in moderation is part of a balanced lifestyle, and in its statement, the group says “we remain committed to supporting research to further understand the role sugar plays in consumers’ evolving eating habits.”
Critics argue that the industry is still trying to slow down the consensus on the health risks linked to sugar consumption. In the PLOS Biology paper, Glantz and his co-authors argue that the ongoing controversy surrounding sugar in our diets “may be rooted in more than 60 years of food and beverage industry manipulation of science.”
In recent years, new evidence has emerged that links sugary diets to heart disease. But could we have gotten the message sooner?
UCSF’s Kearns argues that if the sugar industry had published its findings decades ago, it would have added to a growing body of evidence. “Had this information been made public, there would have been a lot more research scrutiny of sugar,” Kearns told us.
Kearns says the sugar industry has “a lot of money and influence” and still uses its influence to cast doubt on the recommendation to limit added sugars to no more than 10% of daily calories.
In a trade association publication last year, the president and CEO of the Sugar Association described this recommended limit on sugar, which is part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as “scientifically out of bounds.”
What do you think of these latest revelations? Are the adverse health effects of eating sugar going to one day be viewed as being as detrimental to health as smoking cigarettes?
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