Despite a direct correlation between high sugar intake and chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity, the scientific research community hasn’t been able to lead the charge against Big Sugar, in part because of the industry’s influence in clinical trial research, a new study confirms.
The study, published in a recent online edition of the medical journal BMJ, showed that nearly two-thirds of researchers involved with a United Kingdom-based agency that advises the government on matters of nutrition received funding from food, drink, and pharmaceutical companies — including Nestle, Coca-Cola and the Sugar Association — in the early 2000s, during which the organization influenced public policy around sugar trade.
The issue is not specific to the United Kingdom. Researchers in the United States, too, share a profitable relationship with Big Sugar, to the detriment of unbiased research. A 2013 study found that scientists who received funding from the food industry denied a relationship between consumption of sweetened beverages and weight gain five times more often than their counterparts who didn’t have financial ties with the food industry.
“There is a tremendous amount of debate around these issues, being largely driven by people who have different agendas regarding politics rather than an agenda which is to evaluate the evidence and tell people what we think its saying,” Laura Schmidt, a professor at University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine told the Huffington Post. “Because it’s a very political issue, the science gets caught in the middle and can get spun in all directions.”
Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, in part because of high sugar intake. More than one out of three Americans carry exist body weight, a figure that translates into 20 percent of cancer deaths and more than $50 billion in health care spending. But those figures haven’t stopped the sugar industry from working to influence public opinion — an issue that partly stems from the lack of public funding available for research related to the health effects of sugar consumption.
In 2014, less than 20 percent of National Institutes of Health research received grant funding, a more than 10 percentage point drop from the amount of money allocated by the government research industry in the late 1990s. That has allowed food companies to fill funding gaps in a manner similar to that of pharmaceutical companies during the drug approval process.
While scientists have criticized the new BMJ study as being unfair in its attack of the scientists’ integrity and research, information about the sugar industry’s link with the scientific community is nothing new. Big Sugar has maintained a stranglehold all aspects of the ongoing public health debate, specifically public policy and scientific research.
By the mid-2000s, the sugar industry had formed alliances beyond the 15 states and congressional districts where sugar refineries existed. Those efforts helped them defend a $1 billion, 10-year subsidy plan in a new House farm bill.
In 2007, a review of more than 100 studies about sugary beverages found that members of the industry financed most of the research, increasing the chances of a favorable outcome in the findings by 800 percent compared to research that sugar companies didn’t subsidize.
In the same year, a former dentist by the name of Cristin Couzens unearthed documents that showed the Sugar Association’s public relations strategies in the 1970s that aimed to deflect growing public concern about the health consequences of high sugar consumption. Couzens likened Big Sugar’s tactics — including funding research, blitzing the media, and the launch of a campaign that would mold public opinion — to the strategies employed by tobacco industry. She also found documents that outlined the sugar industry’s attempts to block dietary guidelines that would recommend limits of sugar consumption.
“So I had lists of their board reports, their financial statements, I had names of their scientific consultants, I had a list of research projects they funded, and I had these memos where they were describing how their PR men should handle conflict of interest questions from the press,” Couzen told CBC News. “It’s a little bit shocking to me that an industry would be rewarded for manipulating scientific evidence. Many people thought sugar was harmful, the sugar industry wanted to turn public opinion toward thinking sugar was safe so they forged public opinion on how the public viewed the effects of sugar.”