Sugar industry titans and U.S. public health officials have known since the 1950s that, when taken in excess, the sweet crystalline compound can cause cavities and tooth decay. The research and policy recommendations that have surfaced in the decades after, however, have shied away reducing American sugar intake — an outcome influenced by Big Sugar’s attempts to protect its cash cow, a recent study has determined.
Analysts from the University of California, San Francisco examined more than 300 industry documents from the 1960s and 1970s. They found that sugar industry representatives compelled the National Institutes of Health to designate sugar reduction as an impractical public health measure and later helped the agency draw up alternatives that aligned with its priorities. Nearly 80 percent of these recommendations appeared in the National Caries Program (NCP)’s first request for research proposals in the 1970s.
Nearly four decades later, more than two billion people globally suffer from a form of tooth decay, a phenomenon public health officials attribute in part to people’s high consumption of sugary foods and drinks. In the study, published in this week’s issue of PLOS Medicine, researchers criticized the NCP, saying that this public health epidemic and surge of chronic illnesses across the world could have been avoided.
“The NCP was a missed opportunity to develop a scientific understanding of how to restrict sugar consumption to prevent tooth decay,” Cristin E. Kearns, Stanton A. Glantz, and Laura A. Schmidt wrote in the abstract portion of the study. “A key factor was the alignment of research agendas between the NIDR and the sugar industry. This historical example illustrates how industry protects itself from potentially damaging research, which can inform policy makers today.”
This new information comes amid ongoing squabbles between Big Sugar and global public health organizations about sugar guidelines and nutritional standards. The World Health Organization recently drafted a proposal that would make the recommended added sugar intake stand at below 10 percent of total calories per day. The guidelines count among WHO’s numerous attempts since the early 2000s to reduce sugar consumption, and ultimately the prevalence of chronic illnesses, to the chagrin of many sugar industry titans.
The WHO’s assault against sugar is backed up by data. In the United States, childhood obesity has more than doubled within the last 30 years, in part because of high sugar intake among young people via sugary drinks and snacks. More than one in three Americans also carry excess body weight, which translates into 20 percent of cancer deaths and more than $50 billion in health care spending. In recent years, conversations among health experts have shifted to sugar’s addictive properties.
In focusing on that aspect of the ongoing debate, proponents of new nutrition standards have labeled sugar industry giants as drug dealers who push their product in 75 percent of packaged foods in the United States.
“Sugar produces at least three symptoms consistent with substance abuse and dependence: cravings, tolerance and withdrawal,” James J. DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, and Sean C. Lucan, an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in December 2014.
“Other druglike properties of sugar include (but are not limited to) cross-sensitization, cross-tolerance, cross-dependence, reward, opioid effects and other neurochemical changes in the brain. In animal studies, animals experience sugar like a drug and can become sugar-addicted. One study has shown that if given the choice, rats will choose sugar over cocaine in lab settings because the reward is greater; the ‘high’ is more pleasurable,” DiNicolantonio and Lucan wrote.
However, reducing sugar intake could potentially diminish Big Sugar’s earnings. Florida, the nation’s largest producer of sugar cane, enjoys profits of nearly $1.3 billion. As the new study confirms, the sugar industry’s strategy in maintaining those profits includes controlling the narrative about its product and discouraging public health leaders from forming policy around its elimination in consumers’ diets.
The practice continues to this day all around the world: a 2013 study found that scientists who received funding from the food industry denied a relationship between high consumption of sweetened beverages and weight gain five times more often than their counterparts who didn’t have financial ties with the food industry.
Big Sugar’s aspirations to attract and keep its profits don’t stop there, leading many to speculate that industry leaders are employing tactics similar to tobacco industry titans. In the early 2000s, sugar industry groups lobbied senators from 15 sugar-growing states to pressure the Department of Health of Human Services to withdraw funding from WHO in reaction the public health organization’s attempts to revise sugar intake recommendations.
Industry leaders also formed alliances beyond those districts to defend a $1 billion, 10-year subsidy plan in a House farm bill. This subsidy plan has cost domestic consumers and businesses up toward $3.5 billion annually and put 600,000 food manufacturing jobs in jeopardy. Even with falling sugar prices, the price of a candy bar has increased by more than 300 percent in the last 30 years.
But there could be an end to Big Sugar’s run very soon, as the tide is changing among Americans. In a March 2014 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, twice as many respondents ranked sugar as a threat to a person’s overall health than marijuana. And a consensus in the public health community about sugar’s destructive qualities could help start to roll back Big Sugar’s decades-long stranglehold on clinical research.