How the Sugar Industry Fooled the American People

When I was growing up, fat was labeled as the big bad guy. Whole milk and real butter were considered unhealthy. If you used margarine and skimmed milk, others perceived you as health conscious. But it turns out fat isn’t as bad for us as we thought. Sugar, the loaded stuff in 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 warning signs of the link between coronary heart disease and sugar consumption. Last week, Dr Kristin Kearns published a study that sheds light on the dark side of the sugar industry. Kearns reviewed documents, statements and historical records from the Sugar Research Foundation. What she found was that the industry ignored those warning signs.

Now called the Sugar Association, the SRF “sponsored a program of research in the 1960s and 1970s that succeeded in casting doubt on the dangers of sucrose while promoting fats as dietary culprits in [coronary heart disease (CHD)]Kearns determined.

The SRF began sponsoring coronary artery disease research in 1965 with a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine that singled out fats and cholesterol as the dietary causes. He also downplayed the evidence that sugar consumption was also a risk factor. “The SRF defined the purpose of the journal, contributed articles for inclusion, and received drafts,” Kearns wrote in the study. Funding and the role of the SRF were not disclosed.

Founded in 1943, the SRF became concerned in 1962 that a low-fat diet with high sugar intake could raise serum cholesterol levels. John Hickson, vice president and director of research for the SRF, reported to a subcommittee of the organization in 1964 that new research into coronary heart disease was cause for concern. “According to a number of more or less reputable laboratories, there are numerous reports indicating that sugar is a less desirable source of calories than other carbohydrates,” he wrote. Hickson proposed that the SRF “embark on a major program” to counter “negative attitudes towards sugar”. Part of this program funded research on coronary heart disease.

Two famous Harvard nutritionists, Dr. Fredrick Stare and Mark Hegsted, have worked closely with SRF. Both are now deceased, but their work still has repercussions. Hegsted wrote a literature review at the request of the SRF that contradicted research at the time linking sugar consumption to coronary heart disease. Hegsted and his colleague, Dr. Robert McGandy, were paid the equivalent of $48,000 in present value for their work. The source of their funding was not disclosed. Stare has also published reviews questioning the link between sugar and coronary artery disease. Both reviews were published in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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

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

The Sugar Association still does not view industry-sponsored research as a problem. “It is not only regrettable but a disservice that industry-funded research is considered tainted,” the organization said in a statement. Instead, he sees industry-sponsored research as “informative for solving key problems.”

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

If you read labels avidly, and you really should, you’ll invariably see “cane sugar” listed as an ingredient in many processed foods and soft drinks. Although it may have slight health benefits, it is still unhealthy. The good news is that some companies understand the need to reduce sugar in their products. One such company is Nestlé, which reduced its added sugar content by 4.1% at the end of 2015, towards its 10% reduction target. Nestlé has a joint venture with General Mills called Cereal Partners Worldwide to help reformulate recipes to meet its goal of reducing the sugar content of its breakfast cereals to nine grams per serving.

General Mills has succeeded in reducing the sugar content of its cereals marketed to children by more than 16% on average. In 2009, the company pledged to reduce sugar in all cereals marketed to children under 12 to one figure in grams of sugar per serving. Currently, all General Mills Big G children’s cereals contain 10 grams of sugar or less per serving. General Mills has also reduced the sugar in other cereals and reduced the sugar content of its yogurts for children under 12 by more than 21% since 2007.

In May, Dannon announced that it had surpassed its sugar reduction goal. Dannon set a goal 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% of all of its products. . Dannon achieved a 76% reduction for all of its products and a 93% reduction for children’s products.

Image credit: Flickr/Kevin Doncaster

Rachel J. Bradford