The Sugar Conspiracy Is Real

Sugar industry insiders have shaped nutritional research for decades

We’ve been doing battle with our food for a long time now. Last year, nutrition laws cinched the noose tighter around fats, identifying trans fat and banning it from use in food. But fat isn’t the only culprit, nor is it the worst.

Yesterday, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a groundbreaking report by Cristin E. Kearns, whose research has exposed the role of the sugar industry in funding foundational nutrition research in the 1960s. Because of the undisclosed funding by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), sugar evaded the same level of scrutiny that fat has undergone for over the past fifty years.

The sugar industry has been laying it on thick for decades. Photo via Reddit

Back in the 1960s, concerns for rising heart disease were increasing. Everyone wanted to get to the bottom of why, and two leading physiologists each thought they had discovered the cause of coronary heart disease (CHD). John Yudkin’s hypothesis pointed to added sugars as the primary cause, while Ancel Keys identified fat and dietary cholesterol.

Now, this is where things get sticky. The sugar industry decided to weigh-in on the research: historical documents show how SRF members became intricately involved in the studies it was funding, going as far as to directly contact researchers about their findings. Unsurprisingly, the results of the research highlighted fat’s nasty effect on cholesterol levels, diverting attention away from sugar. Not only was sugar obscured from the list of suspects causing CHD, but it was hailed by the industry as healthy source of energy.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Even I was shocked by how blatant the relationship was between the sugar association and the researchers.[/quote]

“The industry sought to influence the scientific debate over the dietary causes of CHD in the 1950s and 1960s, a debate still reverberating in 2016,” Kearns explains. “The industry would subsequently spend $600,000 ($5.3 million in 2016 dollars) to teach ‘people who had never had a course in biochemistry… that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems.’”

The SRF is what is we now know of as the Sugar Association, the sugar industry lobby that has been opposing measures to cut back on sugar consumption since its shady dealings in nutrition research in the 1960s. It openly opposed the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee recommendations to curb added sugars in food, stating that “sugar is an important ingredient that contributes essential functional properties to food formulation, including safety as a natural food preservative. In fact, historic, as well as recent, analyses on ‘added sugars’ intake confirm that sugar makes many nutrient-rich foods palatable which is a positive factor in the intake levels of many essential micronutrients.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="false"]Clearly, too much of a good thing can quickly turn deadly.[/quote]

It’s no surprise that the Sugar Association is unhappy with yesterday’s breaking news. It released a statement today expressing its disappointment in JAMA, implying that the prestigious medical journal has lowered itself in stature by publishing work that is part of what they call an “anti-sugar” trend with “baiting-headlines” that trump “quality scientific research.”

They probably weren’t too happy that JAMA published commentary by leading food policy expert and NYU Professor Marion Nestle, either. Nestle’s most recent work examines the proposed soda tax and looks at the public health effects of the soda industry. Her years of research in food policy have taken a particular interest in industry-funded nutrition research, but yesterday’s news surprised even her.

Marion Nestle is one of the country's leading researchers on industry influence in nutritional research. Photo by Bill Haynes

“Even I was shocked by how blatant the relationship was between the sugar association and the researchers,” Nestle told GOOD. “Usually funders are not that involved in the actual research, or shouldn’t be. Or maybe we just don’t know about it. We do know that it occurs, as demonstrated by the New York Times article last year on Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with researchers in the Global Energy Balance Network. E-mails revealed similar pressures.”

Nestle says that she hopes this will remind journals to diligently require funding disclosures, and that government advisory committees start taking funding into serious consideration when evaluating research. But despite the Sugar Association’s previous threats to sue her, Nestle isn’t anti-sugar.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Funders are not that involved in the actual research, or shouldn’t be. Or maybe we just don’t know about it.[/quote]

“I’m not particularly fond of what I view as a self-serving organization, but I am on record as loving sugar and sweet foods,” she jokes.

It should be noted that sugar isn’t poison, as long as it’s consumed in moderation; the World Health Organization recommends that sugar make up no more than 10% of our daily calories, which Nestle calls “quite reasonable and hardly abstemious.”

Just like fat, sugar isn’t all good or all bad. We need both to survive, but Kearns’s report shows just how much more transparency is needed in the research on potentially harmful nutrients like sugar and fat. Clearly, too much of a good thing can quickly turn deadly.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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