How the sugar industry tried to hide the health effects of its product 50 years ago

About 50 years ago, the sugar industry stopped funding research that began to show something it wanted to hide: that eating lots of sugar is linked to heart disease. A new study exposes decades-long efforts by the sugar industry to stifle this critical research.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco recently analyzed historical documents regarding a rat study called Project 259 that was started in 1968. The study was funded by a sugar industry trade group called International Sugar Research Foundation, or ISRF, and conducted by WFR Pover at the University of Birmingham. When preliminary results from this study began to show that eating a lot of sugar could be associated with heart disease and even bladder cancer, ISRF ended the research. Without additional funding, the study was halted and the results were never published, according to a study published today in PLOS Biology.

Last year, based on a review of internal industry documents, the same group of UCSF researchers showed that in the 1960s, the ISRF – then known as the Sugar Research Foundation – also paid Harvard scientists to obscure the relationship between sugar and heart disease, causing them to blame saturated fat instead. Today’s study adds to the evidence that the sugar industry has helped deflect public discourse from the potentially negative health effects of consuming added sugars through its research funding.

“Had [Project 259] indeed was completed and published, it would have advanced the general scientific discussion of the link between sugar and heart disease,” says study co-author Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “And they prevented that from happening. This helped derail this issue for quite a long time.

Researching the health effects of certain foods is key because it helps shape the federal government’s dietary guidelines, which recommend how Americans should eat to prevent disease. But nutritional science is sometimes influenced by industry groups that have a stake in the results: in 2015, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had paid scientists to distract the public from the link between sugary drinks and obesity. Last year, the Associated Press showed that candy companies are also funding bogus research: one study showed that children who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t.

Industry-funded research often shows results in line with sponsors’ interests, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, who is writing a book on the matter. That’s also true for drug companies, she says, who are known to suppress research that shows unfavorable results.

The study in question looked at the relationship between sugars and certain blood fats called triglycerides, which increase the risk of heart disease. Preliminary results of the research, called Project 259, suggested that rats on a high-sugar diet, instead of a starch-based diet, had higher levels of triglycerides. Rats that ate a lot of sugar also had higher levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase in their urine, which at the time was thought to be potentially linked to bladder cancer, the study co-author says. Cristin Kearns, assistant professor at UCSF. School of Dentistry.

The results were described as “one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose- and starch-fed rats,” according to internal documents reviewed by the UCSF researchers. But after funding the research for 27 months, the International Sugar Research Foundation ended its support. Thus, the study was never completed and the results were never published, according to the UCSF researchers. “Why would they want to fund research that would be against their interests? There’s no reason for them to want to do that,” Nestlé said. The edge.

In a statement to The edgethe Sugar Association—that is how the ISRF is known today—criticized PLOS Biology article, calling it not a study but a “perspective”. Project 259 was shut down because it was “significantly delayed” and was “consequently over budget,” the statement said. He adds, “Throughout its history, the Sugar Association has embraced scientific research and innovation with the goal of learning as much as possible about sugar, diet, and health.”

It is impossible to say whether the first findings of Project 259 would have been confirmed. Today we know that eating lots of added sugars – in sodas, sweets and cereals for example – increases your risk of dying from heart disease. However, there is “still no strong evidence that sugar is a cause of bladder cancer or other cancers in humans,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan. School of Public Health, which did not participate in the study. research, in an e-mail to The edge. “This rodent research is very indirectly related to human cancer, and it would not have materially influenced the conclusions then or now.”

Still, at the time, the preliminary results were interesting enough to warrant further research. But the sugar industry shut down the study because it didn’t like where the results were going, the UCSF researchers say.

Nestlé agrees: “It wasn’t about science. It was a question of marketing,” she says. “If it was science, they would have chased it.”

Update of November 22, 2017 at 09:18: The story has been updated to include a statement from the Sugar Association.

Rachel J. Bradford