Unearthed Correspondence Reveals How Sugar Industry Manipulated Nutritional Science for Decades
For years, we’ve been warned about the dangers of eating too much fat or salt, but health authorities and media have been relatively silent about sugar, despite rising obesity rates and failing health in just about every area that has adopted a Western processed food diet.
The sad truth is, there’s copious amounts of research, spanning many decades, showing that excess sugar damages your health in many ways, yet the sugar industry managed to bury the evidence and cover it up with faux science that supports its own claims, which is that sugar has little or nothing to do with weight gain and ill health.
To this day, they want you to continue believing the outdated myth that saturated fat is to blame instead of sugar, and the calories-in, calories-out myth. Fortunately, the truth is finally starting to see the light of day, and many brave souls have stepped up to the plate to expose and dismantle the orchestrated deception.
Sugar Deceptions Exposed
One of them is science journalist and author Gary Taubes, who in 2012 partnered with Dr. Cristin Kearns, a dentist and fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, to write “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” In their exposé, featured in Mother Jones, they wrote:1
“For 40 years, the sugar industry’s priority has been to shed doubt on studies suggesting its product makes people sick. On federal panels, industry-funded scientists cited industry-funded studies to dismiss sugar as a culprit.”
His latest book, which will be released this fall, is “The Case Against Sugar.” I have read this book and will be interviewing Taubes shortly. If you ever had any doubt about how corrupted and influential the sugar industry is, then you simply must read this book.
Taubes delves into the systematic cover-up of science showing sugar indeed causes disease, and is the most likely culprit in our current health crises of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Gary’s book goes into far more detail than this or the featured New York Times article. 2
Dozens of scientists at three American universities have also banded together to create an educational website called SugarScience.org,3 aimed at making independent sugar research available to the public.
Kearns — interviewed by NPR above — is also making headlines with a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine,4 which details the sugar industry’s influence on dietary recommendations.5,6,7,8,9,10
Historical Analysis Shows Sugar Industry Manipulated Nutritional Science
Kearns’ historical analysis provides substantial proof that the sugar industry has spent decades manipulating, molding and guiding nutritional research to exonerate sugar and shift the blame to saturated fat instead. As reported by The New York Times:11
“The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease.
The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article,12 which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM], minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.
Even though the influence-peddling revealed in the documents dates back nearly 50 years, more recent reports show that the food industry has continued to influence nutrition science.”
Obnoxious Research That Should Raise Your Suspicions
Some of the studies giving sugar a free pass has industry fingerprints clearly visible all over it. For example, one recent paper13 came to the unbelievable and highly unlikely conclusion that eating candy may help prevent weight gain, as children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t.
The source of the funding reveals the basis for such a bizarre conclusion: The National Confectioners Association (NCA), which represents candy makers like Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles.
Last year, Coca-Cola Co. was exposed funneling millions of dollars to an anti-obesity front group, paid to downplay the links between soda and obesity14 — a link that has been firmly established by many previous studies.
Evidence has also emerged showing how the sugar industry influenced the scientific agenda of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, which back in 1971 created a national caries program — again downplaying any links between sugar consumption and dental caries.15
The role of sugar in the diet of diabetics is even downplayed, despite its obvious risks. As noted by Kearns in the NPR interview above, diabetic literature often doesn’t even mention the need for restricting sugar.
Tragically, while type 2 diabetes can be successfully reversed with a proper low-sugar diet, the focus is placed on simply managing the condition through the use of insulin instead — a strategy that typically makes the condition worse.
Diabetics are also urged to use artificial sweeteners, even though studies have clearly shown that artificial sweeteners promote weight gain and worsen insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi-backed research, on the other hand, came to the disturbing and highly irresponsible conclusion that drinking diet soda was more helpful for weight loss than pure water.16
US Dietary Guidelines Were Tainted From the Start
According to Kearns’ historical analysis, one of the Harvard scientists paid to produce research for the sugar industry back in 1967 was Mark Hegsted, Ph.D., a nutrition researcher who passed away in 2009.
In 1977, while heading up the nutrition department at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Hegsted helped draft an early document that eventually became the U.S. dietary guidelines.
In the decades since, U.S. health officials have urged Americans to adopt a low-fat diet to prevent heart disease, and as a result, people switched to processed low-fat, high-sugar foods instead.
This, it turns out, is the REAL recipe for heart disease, yet by taking control of and shaping the scientific discussion, the sugar and processed food industries managed to keep these facts under wraps all these years. The end result is clearly visible in the health statistics of today.
In an accompanying editorial,17 Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, writes:
“From a deep dive into archival documents from the 1950s and 1960s, they have produced compelling evidence that a sugar trade association not only paid for but also initiated and influenced research expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD).”
Shaping Public Opinion Through Research and Legislative Programs
The records, which number around 1,500, include hundreds of pages of letters and correspondence between scientists, nutritionists and sugar executives. The documents were found in the archives of now-defunct sugar companies, as well as in the library records of deceased university researchers who played key roles in the industry’s strategy.
The records reveal that as far back as 1964 — a time when researchers had begun suspecting a relationship between high-sugar diets and heart disease — John Hickson, a sugar industry executive, introduced a plan for how the sugar industry could influence public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs.”
As reported in the featured article:18 “Hickson proposed countering the alarming findings on sugar with industry-funded research. ‘Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors,’ he wrote.”
This idea is what led to the hiring of Hegsted and two other Harvard scientists to review and debunk the studies linking sugary diets with heart disease. “I think it’s appalling,” Nestle told The New York Times.19 “You just never see examples that are this blatant.”
Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, also noted that the documents are a potent reminder of “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.” Unfortunately, it will take a lot to make such a shift. Even clamping down on conflicts of interest is turning out to be difficult. As Nestle told Bloomberg:20
“I, for example, have been told repeatedly that since I wrote ‘Food Politics,’ I am ineligible to serve on federal advisory committees because I am too biased. What this tells me is that people who on principle refuse to take food industry funding are excluded from the candidate pool. But people who do take industry funding are considered acceptable as long as they disclose their financial ties appropriately which, unfortunately, many do not.”
Sugar Industry Responds
Meanwhile, the Sugar Association remains steadfast in its course, responding to Kearns’ paper by saying:21 “We question this author’s continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences to conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative, particularly when the last several decades of research have concluded that sugar does not have a unique role in heart disease.”
It’s interesting to note that the sugar industry’s primary defense is to lean on a “scientific foundation” of research tainted by their own conclusions! Take their response to British nutritionist John Yudkin’s work for example. In 1972, Yudkin published the book, “Pure White and Deadly,” in which he presented decades of research pointing at dietary sugar — rather than fat — as the underlying factor in obesity and diabetes.
In response, the Sugar Association secretly funded a white paper called “Sugar in the Diet of Man,” which claimed sugar was not only safe and healthy, but an important “energy” food. “Scientists Dispel Sugar Fears,” reads the headline of the Sugar Association’s press release.22 And, while they funded the paper in question, they made it appear to be an independent study.
The Sugar Association’s biggest apologist was Ancel Keys, Ph.D., who, with industry funding, helped destroy Yudkin’s reputation by discrediting him and labeling him a quack. The smear campaign was a huge success, bringing sugar research to a screeching halt. Like the tobacco and chemical industries, those who profit from sugar have become very adept at crushing dissenting voices, including those in the halls of science.
By silencing sugar critics, the sugar industry was able to continue the promotion of saturated fat as the dietary villain, despite its lack of scientific support. The 21st century brought super-sized sodas along with super-sized health problems, and the food industry continues to look the other way — hoping you won’t catch on to the truth.
Just as Big Tobacco angled to place the blame for cancer elsewhere, Big Sugar has scrambled for cover, borrowing Big Tobacco tactics such as undermining science, intimidating scientists and subverting public health policy.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
According to a 2014 study,23 more than 7 out of 10 American adults get at least 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar; 1 in 10 get 25 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugars. It also found that:
- People who consumed 21 percent or more of their daily calories in the form of sugar were twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to those who got 7 percent or less of their daily calories from added sugar
- The risk nearly tripled among those who got 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar
More recent research shows that high-sugar diets are also a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease in children — and pose a significant risk even far below current levels of consumption. As noted in the latest scientific statement on children’s sugar consumption from the American Heart Association (AHA):24
“Strong evidence supports the association of added sugars with increased cardiovascular disease risk in children through increased energy intake, increased adiposity, and dyslipidemia … [I]t is reasonable to recommend that children consume ≤25 g[rams] (100 cal[ories] or ≈ 6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day and to avoid added sugars for children <2 years of age.”
According to the AHA, kids eat on average 19 teaspoons of added sugar a day — about three times more than recommended, and the evidence clearly indicates that this dietary trend goes hand-in-hand with our current epidemics of obesity and chronic disease. A single can of soda or fruit punch can contain about 40 grams of sugar, making sweetened drinks particularly risky for young children.
Breakfast cereals, cereal bars, bagels and pastries also tend to contain high amounts of added sugars. For the longest time, there was no real cutoff recommendation for sugar, aside from recommendations to eat sugar “in moderation” — something that is virtually impossible to do if you’re eating processed foods. Thankfully, this is finally changing. The AHA now recommends limiting daily addedsugar intake to:25,26,27,28,29,30,31
- 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men
- 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women
- 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for toddlers and teens between the ages of 2 and 18
- Zero added sugars for kids under the age of 2
The National Institute of Health (NIH) has also issued sugar recommendations, suggesting kids between the ages of 4 and 8 limit their added sugar to a maximum of 3 teaspoons a day (12 grams), and children age 9 and older stay below 8 teaspoons. While I agree with the 25 gram max as a general recommendation for healthy people, in my view, virtually everyone would benefit from the under age 2 recommendation.
Tips for Reducing Your Added Sugar Intake
One of the easiest and most rapid ways to dramatically cut down on your added sugar and fructose consumption is to simply eat real food, as most of the added sugar you end up with comes from processed foods. Other ways to cut down on the sugar in your diet includes:
- Cutting down, with the aim of eliminating, sugar you personally add to your food and drink or consume in the form of processed foods and sweetened beverages
- Using Stevia or Luo Han instead of sugar and/or artificial sweeteners. You can learn more about the best and worst of sugar substitutes in my previous article, “Sugar Substitutes — What’s Safe and What’s Not“
- Using fresh fruit in lieu of canned fruit or sugar for meals or recipes calling for a bit of sweetness
- Using spices instead of sugar to add flavor to your meal