How Sweet It Isn’t
Newly uncovered documents show that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find ways to prevent tooth decay among children. The catch? The federally-assisted efforts were focused on finding ways that DID NOT involve reducing sugar consumption. More than 300 documents, stored in a public collection at the University of Illinois, were recently brought to light. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco have just published a paper detailing the sordid affair.
The documents paint an unflattering picture of an industry that cozied up to the very federal agency tasked with advancing the health of Americans. The documents, from the 1960s and ‘70s, show that an international coalition of sugar interests had accepted that sugar consumption is directly related to toot decay as early as 1950. Most people are well aware of this fact, now. But what we didn’t know is that the sugar lobby worked closely with NIH to save kids’ teeth—without harming the sugar industry. The priority appears to have been less focused on health and more on helping Big Sugar keep making big profits.
By 1969, NIH had decided that efforts to reduce sugar consumption would prove impractical, even though the approach would be “theoretically possible.” "The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake," said first author Cristin Kearns, DDS, MBA, who discovered the archives. "It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than forty years ago."
"These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in the tobacco industry in the same era,” said co-author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD. Glantz previously uncovered similar relationships among Big Tobacco and the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting “we, the people”. Those discoveries led to massive settlements. "Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting the public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits over public health," Glantz added.
That’s alarming, when you consider where things stand now. “There is robust evidence now linking excess sugar consumption with heart disease, diabetes and liver disease, in addition to tooth decay," said Laura Schmidt PhD, a principal investigator on the UCSF-led SugarScience initiative. “Times have definitely changed since that era, but this is a stark lesson in what can happen if we are not careful about maintaining scientific integrity.”
Cristin E. Kearns, Stanton A. Glantz, Laura A. Schmidt. Sugar Industry Influence on the Scientific Agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research’s 1971 National Caries Program: A Historical Analysis of Internal Documents. PLOS Medicine, 2015; 12 (3): e1001798 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001798