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How the Sugar Industry Deceived the American People

GinaMarie headshotWords by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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When I was growing up, fat was labeled the big bad guy. Whole milk and real butter were considered unhealthy. If you used margarine and non-fat milk, others perceived you as health-conscious. But it turns out fat isn’t as bad for us as we thought. Sugar, the substance loaded into so many of our processed foods and soft drinks, is far worse for us. For too long, we just didn’t realize.

Blame our ignorance on the sugar industry. There were early warning signs of the link between coronary heart disease and sugar consumption. Last week, Dr. Kristin Kearns published a study that casts light on the dark side of the sugar industry. Kearns looked at Sugar Research Foundation documents, statements and historical records. What she discovered is that the industry ignored those warning signs.

Now called the Sugar Association, the SRF “sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [coronary heart disease (CHD)],” Kearns determined.

SRF began sponsoring research on CHD in 1965 with a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine which cast fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes. It also downplayed evidence that consuming sugar was also a risk factor. “The SRF set the review’s objective, contributed articles for inclusion, and received drafts,” Kearns wrote in the study. The funding and role of the SRF was not disclosed.

Founded in 1943, the SRF became concerned in the 1962 that a low-fat diet with high sugar consumption could increase the level of serum cholesterol. John Hickson, the SRF’s vice president and director of research, reported to an organization subcommittee in 1964 that new research on CHD was a reason to be concerned. “From a number of laboratories of greater or lesser repute, there are flowing reports that sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates,” he wrote. Hickson proposed that the SRF “embark on a major program” to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar.” Part of that program was funding CHD research.

Two famous Harvard nutritionists, Dr. Fredrick Stare and Mark Hegsted, worked closely with the SRF. Both are now deceased, but their work still has repercussions. Hegsted wrote a literature review at the behest of the SRF that countered research at the time linking sugar consumption to CHD. Hegsted and his colleague, Dr. Robert McGandy, were paid the equivalent of $48,000 in today’s value for their work. The source of their funding was not disclosed. Stare also published reviews casting doubt on the link between sugar and CHD. Both reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Current studies link a diet heavy in sugar with the risk of dying from heart disease. A 2014 study found a “significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality.” That same year, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged countries to decrease sugar consumption, and the organization’s guidelines recommend that adults and children reduce their daily intake of sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy intake. WHO also recommend that reducing to 5 percent of total energy intake, or about 25 grams (six teaspoons) a day, would have added health benefits. In other words, most Americans need to drastically reduce our sugar consumption.

The study by Kearns suggests that policy-making committees “should consider giving less weight to food industry–funded studies.” Marion Nestle, an expert on food policy, wrote in a commentary for JAMA that “industry-sponsored nutrition research ... almost invariably produces results that confirm the benefits or lack of harm of the sponsor’s products, even when independently sponsored research comes to opposite conclusions.”

The Sugar Association still doesn’t see industry-sponsored research as a problem. “It is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is branded as tainted,” the organization said in a statement. Instead, it sees industry-sponsored research as “informative in addressing key issues.” 

Some companies reduce sugar content, while others tout the use of “cane sugar”

If you read labels avidly, and really you should, you will invariably see “cane sugar” listed as an ingredient in a lot of processed foods and soft drinks. While it might have slight health advantages, it’s still unhealthy. The good news is that some companies understand that reducing sugar in their products is necessary. One of those companies is Nestle, which reduced its added-sugar content by 4.1 percent by the end of 2015, toward its goal of a 10 percent reduction. Nestle has a joint venture with General Mills called Cereal Partners Worldwide to help reformulate recipes to meet its goal to reduce the sugar content in its breakfast cereals to nine grams per serving.

General Mills managed to reduce the sugar levels in its cereals marketed to children by over 16 percent, on average. In 2009, the company pledged to reduce sugar in all cereals marketed to children under 12 to single-digit grams of sugar per serving. Currently, all General Mills Big G kid's cereals have 10 grams of sugar or less per serving. General Mills also reduced sugar in other cereals, and cut the sugar content in its yogurts marketed to children under 12 by over 21 percent since 2007.

Back in May, Dannon announced that it had exceeded its sugar reduction goal. Dannon set a target a few years ago to reduce the amount of sugar it uses to 23 grams or less per six-ounce serving for all products marketed to children and 70 percent of its overall products. Dannon achieved a 76 percent reduction for its overall products and a 93 percent reduction for children’s products.

Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Doncaster

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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