Hundreds of thousands of years ago, we craved energy-dense foods packed with salts, fats, and sugars because they ensured our survival. Nowadays, those in wealthy nations have easy access to a cornucopia of treats, and it’s one of the driving causes of obesity, itself linked to a plethora of health afflictions.
The US government has only recently updated its health guidelines to advise people to cut out a lot of sugar from their diets, but as highlighted in two recent studies, the sugar industry has been aware of its dangers for at least half a century.
“The sugar industry did not disclose evidence of harm from animal studies that would have (1) strengthened the case that the coronary heart disease risk of sucrose is greater than starch and (2) caused sucrose to be scrutinized as a potential carcinogen,” the latest paper concludes.
Today, the trade association for the sugar industry in the US is known as the Sugar Association, but back in the 1960s, it was the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF). Researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have been digging through old records and, over the last few years, have uncovered evidence of a cover-up by the SRF of their own research that put them in a bad light.
As reported last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, the first study, funded by the SRF in secret, was published back in 1967. Using statistical techniques that reviewers would now say heavily biased the data, the paper discounted evidence linking sugar consumption to the levels of lipids (fats) within the blood – which in turn was linked to heart disease.
This study happened to appear at a time when that exact link was being debated by scientists across the world, and it sought to muddy the waters. The link today is absolutely clear and uncontroversial.
As has just been revealed in PLOS Biology, a second peculiar research project has been found. Carried out between 1967 and 1971 under the name Project 259, the SRF was assessing how sugar intake affected the digestive systems of rats.
After finding that there was a link to bladder cancer, the SRF terminated the project’s funding shortly before it was due to be completed. The results were never published.
It’s worth remembering that plenty of industry research is often kept behind closed doors. Major studies by tobacco companies and fossil fuel companies are often published behind a prohibitively expensive paywall or without fanfare, so not everyone can easily see them.
Even when the research lines up with what independent scientists have found, the PR messages the companies espouse are often in direct conflict with the studies. We’re not saying that all industries are involved in such behaviors, but it does seem like those selling sugar aren’t exactly being very open.
For their part, the researchers make a direct comparison between what is essentially Big Tobacco and Big Sugar.
“The tobacco industry also has a long history of conducting research on the health effects of its products that is often decades ahead of the general scientific community and not publishing results that do not support its agenda,” they noted.
“This paper provides empirical data suggesting that the sugar industry has a similar history of conducting, but not publishing studies with results that are counter to its commercial interests.”
For its part, the Sugar Association has released a statement deriding the new PLOS Biology study – one which claims that the sugar industry has always had a “commitment to transparency”.