Sugar industry hid possible evidence of cancer link 50 years ago, researchers say

Scientists at the University of California at San Francisco said they discovered documents showing that members of the sugar industry canceled a study, called Project 259, in the 1960s because it linked sucrose – a common sugar – to heart disease and bladder cancer in preliminary experiments.

In 2016, the same researchers discovered a separate, undisclosed document that showed the sugar industry funded a report downplaying links between sugar and coronary heart disease.

But a trade group maintains that the sugar industry has always been transparent about Project 259 and supports scientific evidence even if the results are unfavorable. Here’s a breakdown of what the UCSF researchers found.

How the researchers spotted Project 259

UCSF dentist Cristin Kearns began digging into the sugar industry 10 years ago, after representatives at a conference said there was “no scientific consensus” on the link between sugar and chronic disease. She searched the archives of libraries across the country and finally came across a box containing “confidential” documents about “Project 259”.

In 1968, the Sugar Research Foundation initiated a rodent study, which measured the nutritional products of gut bacteria after rats consumed sucrose compared to starch. The first results of Project 259 showed that sucrose caused gut microbes to reject rodent metabolism, thereby increasing their triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are fatty molecules that, when elevated, can clog arteries and predispose a person to cardiovascular disease. In a preliminary experiment, Project 259 also found that a diet high in sugar increased the activity of beta-glucuronidase, an enzyme linked to bladder cancer, compared to a starch-based diet. The second half of the study, which would have taken a more in-depth look at starch, was never completed.

After reporting this discovery in August 1970 to the International Sugar Research Foundation, scientists on Project 259 requested an additional 12 weeks of funding to continue the research, according to internal documents. A month later, Sugar Research Foundation vice president of research John Hickson called the value of Project 259 “nil,” Glantz and Kearns say. The request for funding was refused and the project was abandoned in 1971.

Kearns and UCSF cardiologist Stanton Glantz, who revealed details of the project in an analysis published Tuesday in PLOS Biology, argue that the sugar industry has buried the evidence and halted funding because of the negative results.

What the sugar industry says: Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, said the researchers’ assessment was nothing more than “a series of assumptions and speculations.”

“They never called us. We would have let them consult the archives. I’ll let them watch tomorrow. The story we have in our archives is much better than the story they told, ”said Gaine.

Gaine said his own internal investigation revealed that Project 259 was canceled just as the Sugar Research Foundation split into two organizations: the Sugar Association and the International Sugar Research Foundation (which is now the World Health Organization). sugar research). In addition to the bureaucratic overhaul, the study suffered long delays and significantly exceeded budget, Gaine said. (Glantz, in opposition, argued that such delays are inherent in the research).

Project 259 was ultimately handed over to the British Nutrition Foundation, Gaine said, adding that his documentation ends there. She said the Sugar Association doesn’t know why the British Nutrition Foundation failed to complete the study.

Why this is important: “Evidence emerged in the 1950s and 1960s that linked sugar consumption to heart disease, but the sugar industry was interested in casting doubt on this evidence. In [Project 259] they would prove it to themselves and then say something different to the audience, ”said Kearns of the University of California.

Gaine countered that the Sugar Association was not trying to hide anything. When it comes to sugar, “it was always understood that there were too many good things,” she said, saying the industry is looking at any negative health claims because they “want to know if they is correct “.

Gaine added that the Sugar Association supports the dietary guidelines for sugar in moderation based on the FDA’s recommendation that only 10 percent of daily calorie intake should come from sugar. She also pointed out that one of the funders of the Glantz and Kearns survey is Gary Taubes, co-founder of the Nutrition Science Initiative and author of the book “The Case Against Sugar”. Another funder – the Laura and John Arnold Foundation – has already donated $ 500,000 to support a lawsuit in favor of taxes on sugary drinks.

But, Kearns believes if the preliminary results had been confirmed and published, it would have prompted further examination of sugar as a carcinogenic food additive. In the late 1960s, artificial sweeteners were being considered for similar concerns. A 1969 study found that cyclamate, an artificial sweetener, increased the risk of bladder cancer in rats, and this sweetener was banned soon after.

Gaine and Glantz both said Project 259 was cutting edge, given that it focused on the gut microbiome. Kearns said the completion of Project 259 and the disclosure of its results could have accelerated the onset of “precision medicine” – developing targeted interventions for people with heart disease based on their risk factors. This personalized health care considers, for example, the examination of the blood profile (cholesterol and triglycerides) to recommend either a diet low in fat or a diet low in sugar and carbohydrates.

“Whether you’re talking about the sugar industry, the tobacco, or the oil industry and climate change, the basic game they’re playing is trying to slow down the development of a strong scientific consensus that could lead to a change in policy, ”Glantz said.

Rachel J. Bradford