Secret sugar industry documents echo tobacco tactics

When Cristin Couzens went looking for evidence that Big Sugar had manipulated public opinion, she had no idea what she was doing. She was a dentist, not an investigative reporter. But she couldn’t let go of the nagging suspicion that something was wrong.

His obsession began in an unlikely place, at a dental conference in Seattle in 2007 about diabetes and gum disease. When a speaker listed foods to avoid, there was no mention of sugar. “I thought it was very strange,” Couzens said. And when a second speaker suggested that sugary drinks were a healthy choice, she followed him up at the end of the lecture to make sure she heard him correctly. “How could you recommend sweet tea as a healthy drink? she asked the speaker, who paused just long enough to say, “There’s no evidence that links sugar to chronic disease,” before rushing out the door.

Cristin Couzens published secret documents in a magazine article titled Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies. (Eric Weber)

‘I was so shocked by that statement,’ she said, ‘I felt compelled to do a bit of research, thinking the sugar industry may have had an influence on the lack of guidance to limit sugar intake to prevent and control diabetes. That’s what triggered me.”

She quit her job, exhausted her savings and spent 15 months digging through the library archives. Then one day, she found what she was looking for, in a cardboard box at the Colorado State University archives.

“The first file I opened jumped out at me,” she said. “It was on the letterhead of the Sugar Association, which is the trade association in Washington for growers of cane and beet sugar. And the word ‘confidential’ was right under the letterhead. So , the first document I saw was a confidential memo from the Sugar Association talking about their public relations strategies in the 70s.”

What Couzens found was something food industry critics had been seeking for years – documents suggesting the sugar industry was using Big Tobacco tactics to deflect growing concerns about the health effects of sugar.

“So I had lists of their board reports, their financial statements, I had the names of their scientific consultants, I had a list of research projects they were funding, and I had these memos where they outlined how their PR men should handle conflict of interest issues from the press,” she said.

The documents survived in the University of Colorado Library archives only because they helped explain a photograph of three men and a trophy. When the Great West Sugar Company went out of business in the 1980s, someone put the records in a box so the librarians would know who the men were and why they were honored. So who were they?

“It was a photo of sugar industry executives receiving the Silver Anvil, which is like the Oscars of the PR world,” Couzens said. In the 1976 photo, the president of the Sugar Association and his public relations director smile as they pose with their award for their successful ‘shaping public opinion’ campaign, in the face of growing consumer and government concern over the risks for sugar health.

“It’s a little shocking to me that an industry is rewarded for manipulating scientific evidence,” Couzens said. “At the time the award was given in 1976 there was controversy. Many people thought sugar was harmful, the sugar industry wanted to get the public to believe that sugar was safe, so they forged public opinion about how the public perceived the effects of sugar,” she says.

As Couzens sifted through the documents, the full extent of this campaign to forge public opinion emerged. The documents outline industry lobbying efforts to sponsor scientific research, silence media reports critical of sugar and block dietary guidelines to limit sugar consumption.

The president of the Sugar Association reported at the October 1976 board meeting that, “in confronting our detractors, we try never to lose sight of the fact that no confirmed scientific evidence links sugar to life-threatening diseases. This crucial point is the soul of the association.”

And the Sugar Association has been clear about its intention to use science to defeat sugar critics. To support “our desire to maintain research as the main pillar of defense of the industry”, member companies were informed that $230,000 was set aside to fund scientific research, according to a report from the annual board meeting. administration of the Sugar Association, in Chicago in 1977.

At the next meeting a year later in Washington, the Sugar Association briefed the board on the research program, listing 17 different scientists at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Harvard and Yale, receiving money from the sugar industry.

Some of the money was provided by “Contributing Research Members”, heavy sugar consumers including “Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, General Foods, General Mills and Nabisco”, who contributed funds specifically for the scientific effort of the pressure group. The document reports that these companies each “contributed $10,000 to our general research fund.”

Target media coverage

The documents also reveal attempts to manipulate media coverage. The Sugar Association had been stung by a headline in the New York Times: “The Bitter Truth About Sugar”, written by a prominent nutritionist in June 1976. “It’s bad for your health, bad for your teeth, and we eat more of it what do we think,” the article said.

The president of the Sugar Association warned the board that this “poor quality article” was followed by “naïve writers working for other newspapers across the country”. But the association had saved the day. Thanks to an internal trick, they were able to prevent Reader’s Digest from publishing a condensed version of the same article.

“Thanks to friendly sources alerting us, a phased approach to research by the Digest, and perseverance on our part, we were able to persuade them to cancel the story,” the document reads. “We did it in two stages. We failed in our initial conversations, but were successful when we took our case to the editor. Our telegraph to him is included in your records and could be useful to you if you were confronted to criticism.”

The documents Couzens found in that cardboard box also reveal that the Sugar Association was busy trying to block dietary guidelines that would recommend limits on sugar consumption. At the time, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, released “Dietary Goals for the United States,” which recommended that Americans cut their sugar intake by 40 percent. .

The Sugar Association had been warned by a committee insider that “the final conclusions would hang the sugar,” the association’s president told the board in 1977. And now that the committee’s report had been released, the results “certainly confirm this prediction”, he added.

But the pressure group had a plan. “The McGovern report must be ‘neutralized,'” the document reads, assuring members that the Sugar Association would retaliate, because “the consequences of losing this battle and allowing dietary goals to become a baseline are too serious to be taken.” lightly .”

The sugar industry engaged in the consumption of sucrose

When Couzens approached the sugar industry for comment, he was told the documents were ancient history. “They made a comment like, that was in the past and doesn’t reflect the mission of the sugar association right now,” she said. But then she found another document, an August 2003 internal Sugar Association electronic newsletter that announced that “The Sugar Association is committed to protecting and promoting the consumption of sucrose. Any disparagement of sugar will make the subject to vigorous and strategic public commentary and supporting science.”

Couzens said the paper shows that “the sugar industry is still very active in nominating scientists to serve on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and it still publishes research through links with the World Sugar Research Organization. sugar, based in London. These scientific reviews that are published by the sugar industry are always considered in the review of evidence for dietary guidelines, so they always serve to balance the evidence,” she said.

Armed with all these documents, Couzens’ next challenge was to somehow make them public. She sought out author Gary Taubes, an American science writer who has written extensively on the health effects of sugar. He listened to her story and offered to help her get the documents published in the independent news magazine Mother Jones, under the provocative title “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies”. What happened when this bomb finally came to light, after months of research and sacrifice? Nothing, said Couzens. The story was not picked up by the mainstream media.

Couzens attributes this to Hurricane Sandy. The media were distracted. But, she said, the story “especially caught the attention of food policy makers here in the United States, as well as researchers who had studied the tobacco industry and are seeing the parallels,” she said.

“I thought it was just wonderful and contacted her immediately,” said Marion Nestlé, author of Food policy, a professor at New York University and a vocal critic of the food industry. “Those kinds of things are very, very hard to find. One of the things that brought cigarette companies down was finding huge documentation of cigarette manufacturers’ efforts to cover up the fact that they knew cigarettes were unhealthy. It’s very, very hard to find that stuff, so it was a real treasure.”

When CBC News asked the Canadian Sugar Institute to comment on revelations that the sugar lobby group had influenced science and public opinion, it didn’t answer the question. Instead, we received this response: “The Canadian Sugar Institute (CSI) is the national, not-for-profit association representing Canadian sugar manufacturers in matters of nutrition and international trade. I present to you a summary of the scientific consensus on some common misconceptions about sugars and health.”

Chiara DiAngelo, nutrition communications coordinator at the Canadian Sugar Institute, also offered the names of several university professors to talk to for more information on industry-sponsored research.

This is the second of two special reports by CBC health reporter Kelly Crowe on how the industry designs food to make us crave it.

Rachel J. Bradford