What's the best way to get rid of potentially damaging news? Bury it. How are you going to bury it? Under a mountain of sugar? Sweet, sweet irony. You can also bury it under a lot of expensive and diversionary research that offsets the blame. That's just what a new study out of University of California San Francisco uncovers about the sugar industry: roughly 50 years ago it spent a boatload of money to quiet a report that linked sugar to heart disease. Now we're learning the truth.
At that time, there was still much debate over how much our diets could influence the risk of heart disease. It was also up for grabs as to whether fats or sugar played a more prominent role. The sugar industry wasted no time, and they successfully and decisively shunted all the blame over to fats using tactics only rivaled by Big Tobacco.
As we now know, a revelation has come to light that, published by JAMA Internal Medicine, alleges the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard researchers for research that promotes sugar consumption and puts the industry in a better light. It approached Harvard scientists to conduct research that would exculpate sugar, and damn fats instead. Of course, these scientists never disclosed where the funding came from — and the SRF never admitted to whom they donated it.
One approach was to get articles placed in the scientific journals. In 1965, an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation funded a report on the down low that sought to understate the effects of sugar on blood fat levels. The article was published in The New England Journal of Medicine among others, gaining credibility and currency along the way.
The Sugar Research Foundation is still an extant research foundation today, although it goes by the name the Sugar Association. It was founded in 1943 with the mission to "promote the consumption of sugar as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle through the use of sound science and research." I mean, how more blatant can you get? These were the guys on the advisory board way back when. White white white. Just like sugar.
In addition to publishing diversionary information in preeminent scholarly journals, SRF also funded a case study on their own in 1965 called Project 259. As part of the experiment they fed their experimental group of rats a high sucrose diet. What did they find?
Sucrose consumption might be associated with elevated levels of beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme previously associated with bladder cancer in humans.
But the SRF never published these findings. These are the findings that could have turned focus on sucrose as a potential carcinogen. It would also have weakened their defense that sucrose was less effective at raising the risk of cancer than starches (which they were feeding to another set of mice). PLOS is the journal that published this revelation just recently. They say that:
The influence of the gut microbiota in the differential effects of sucrose and starch on blood lipids, as well as the influence of carbohydrate quality on beta-glucuronidase and cancer activity, deserve further scrutiny [bolded are mine].
But the SRF didn't pull the plug on the research before it had revealed some startling insights. A high sucrose diet resulted in high triglycerides — which are a type of fat in the blood. In humans, high triglycerides can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, by clogging the arteries. This was a serious finding, one that the SRF didn't want to get out.
But in a recent rebuttal from the Sugar Association, the organization denies that it discontinued the research for possible unfavorable findings. It blamed the curtailment on the project going over budget and being delayed. The delay cut into another bureaucratic maneuver, that of restructuring the organization. The researchers wanted more time to finish — the soon-to-be SA said no way, buddy.
Now, the plot thickens. In the 1960s there was rolled out something called the Delaney amendment to the Food and Drug Act. The amendment stated that known animal carcinogens had to be absent from food sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration. Had the SRF carried out their researched, and published it, and if the findings were egregious enough, it could have spurred the FDA to action. And sugar might have a very different kind of pervasiveness than it does today.
Annual lobbying for sugar in the US almost doubled this year, after last year. It's now up past $700,000. That could be because of all the bad press coming its way. That's one reason why so many organizations are slow to denounce sugar. Another is just being behind the times.
Various governments have tried to tax sugar, in one form or another. Soda taxes sometimes work, but rarely. Hopefully the flood of new information is going to wake the population up to the health risks of a high-sugar diet. That seems to be the only real way that the SAF and its deep-pocketed allies are going to change their ways. Because they haven't in over 60 years.