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How Big Sugar Influences Nutrition Science: A First Glimpse at Sugar Industry Documents

ByCrossFit November 19, 2019

Cristin Kearns was managing dental clinics for Kaiser and researching the link between gum disease and Type 2 diabetes when she came across a brochure with the CDC’s dietary recommendations for diabetics. The brochure encouraged those suffering from the disease to manage their blood glucose levels by increasing fiber and limiting saturated fats and salt. One thing Kearns expected to see mentioned instead was conspicuously absent: sugar.

Kearns’ interest in this conspicuous absence continued to bother her, she tells the audience at a CrossFit Health event at CrossFit Headquarters on Oct. 13, 2019. Later, after reading Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, her interest became increasingly focused on the sugar industry and its involvement in shaping dietary recommendations.

She describes how her new interest changed the trajectory of her career, recalling how she got rid of cable TV and started digging into this question about industry influence over dietary recommendations after work. Within a year, she had quit her job and begun working on her new research project full time.

The research trail eventually led her to the archives of the Great Western Sugar Company, a Denver business that went defunct in the 1970s and then donated its files to local libraries. The files revealed some of the sugar industry’s tactics as they sought to shape the public’s perception of its products.

Kearns explains how she expanded her search and began collecting archives of industry documents from around the country. The documents are now hosted online by the University of California, San Francisco library, and are accessible here.

The accumulated archives include a record of instances in which the Sugar Association, a 501(c)6 formerly known as the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), used public relations campaigns and industry funding to influence scientific research, education, and public policy, thereby supporting its mission to promote sugar consumption.

Several documents suggest sugar industry strategies became a model for the now-infamous marketing campaigns used by Big Tobacco, “so it could be that the sugar industry was in this game before the tobacco industry,” Kearns explains.

The documents also reveal the Sugar Association’s influence over the National Institutes of Health’s stance on sugar as well as the association’s efforts to shape the scientific literature on the relationship between sugar intake and coronary heart disease (CHD).

Capitalizing on the growing popularity of low-fat diets in the 1950s and ‘60s, SRF President H. B. Hass wrote, “If [the American public switched to a low-fat diet], this change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar by more than a third.” The SRF then hired Harvard Professor Mark Hegsted to produce a review of the literature linking CHD to either sugar or saturated fat.

Kearns explains how she developed her own review of the studies cited by Hegsted et al. and assessed them for bias. She concluded the SRF researchers had “accentuated the inherent uncertainty of studies linking sucrose to CHD” and “overstated the certainty of the body of evidence linking saturated fat to CHD.” The reviewers disclosed industry funding from other groups but did not disclose the funding they had received from the SRF, she adds.

Kearns’ research has been picked up by representatives at the World Health Organization, The New York Times, and other media outlets around the world. It has had an impact on the kinds of conversations that develop surrounding the sugar industry. However, the impact has not been great enough, she argues, noting that while the tobacco industry is no longer invited to health-related conversations by regulating bodies, the food industry still is.

During her presentation, Kearns pulls up a slide showing how many studies the SRF funded in the name of public health between 1943 and 1972 across a range of topics relating to tooth decay, diabetes, nutrition, and CHD. She says these studies generated 300 or more papers, and she has only had the chance to look into a handful of them.

“There’s a ton more information out there to be found, and so, stay tuned,” she says. “There’s a lot more to explore.”

To read a full transcription of the presentation, click here.

To access the University of California, San Francisco’s Industry Documents Library, click here.

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