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How the sugar industry has kept us in the dark about the sweetener’s true health risks

CC/Flickr/Uwe Hermann
The sugar industry has for decades manipulated scientists, government regulators, physicians and the public into believing that sugar is not a serious health risk.

Perhaps it’s not what people will want to read after the annual sugar-fest known as Halloween, but Mother Jones has a terrific article in its current (Nov.-Dec.) issue about how the sugar industry has for decades manipulated scientists, government regulators, physicians and the public into believing that sugar is not a serious health risk.

The article is written by science writer Gary Taubes (“Why We Get Fat” and “Good Calories, Bad Calories”) and Cristin Kearns Couzens, a senior consultant at the University of Colorado Center for Health Administration.

Taubes and Couzens uncovered and examined more than 1,500 pages of internal memos, letters and reports from the sugar industry. Those documents show, the two reporters write, “how Big Sugar used Big Tobacco-style tactics to ensure that government agencies would dismiss troubling health claims against their products.”

This decades-long effort to stack the scientific deck is why, today, the USDA’s dietary guidelines only speak of sugar in vague generalities (“Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars”). It’s why the FDA insists that sugar is “generally recognized as safe” despite considerable evidence suggesting otherwise. It’s why some scientists’ urgent calls for regulation of sugary products have been dead on arrival, and it’s why — absent any federal leadership — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt compelled to propose a ban on oversized sugary drinks that passed in September.

In fact, a growing body of research suggests that sugar and its nearly chemically identical cousin, [high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS], may very well cause diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and that these chronic conditions would be far less prevalent if we significantly dialed back our consumption of added sugars.

Robert Lustig, a leading authority on pediatric obesity at the University of California-San Francisco, … made this case last February in the prestigious journal Nature. In an article titled “The Toxic Truth About Sugar” Lustig and two colleagues observed that sucrose and HFCS are addictive in much the same way as cigarettes and alcohol, and that overconsumption of them is driving worldwide epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes (the type associated with obesity). Sugar-related diseases are costing American around $150 billion a year, the authors estimated, so federal health officials need to step up and consider regulating the stuff.

A ‘conscious’ effort that continues today

The details of how the sugar industry has managed to successfully defend itself against the scientific evidence that links sugar with obesity, diabetes and heart disease (evidence that has been around since the late 1960s) are both eye-opening and, well, infuriating. Sugar-industry documents show “a very conscious effort by the sugar industry to sort of make sure that no researchers even came to a consensus that sugar was as bad as it might be,” Taubes says in a video that accompanies the Mother Jones article.

And that effort continues to this day. Write Taubes and Couzens:

[I]t is clear enough that the industry still operates behind the scenes to make sure regulators never officially set a limit on the amount of sugar Americans can safely consume. The authors of the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, for instance, cited two scientific reviews as evidence that sugary drinks don’t make adults fat. The first was written by Sigrid Gibson, a nutrition consultant whose clients included the Sugar Bureau (England’s version of the [U.S.’s] Sugar Association) and the World Sugar Research Organization. … The second review was authored by Carrie Ruxton, who served as research manager of the Sugar Bureau from 1995 to 2000.

The Sugar Association has also worked its connections to assure that the government panels making dietary recommendations — the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for instance — include researchers sympathetic to its position. One internal newsletter boasted in 2003 that for the USDA panel, the association had “worked diligently to achieve the nomination of another expert wholly through third-party endorsements.”

Convincing consumers

In the Mother Jones video, Taubes expresses optimism that the public will see through all the sugar industry obfuscation and begin to cut back on their sugar intake.

“It’s not that hard to convince people that sugar is bad for them,” he says.

Still, the typical American consumes 76.7 pounds of sugar each year, according to the latest USDA statistics. It’s going to take a lot of convincing to get that number down.

Starting, perhaps, with Halloween.

You can read the Mother Jones article and watch the video interview with Taubes on the magazine’s website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Randall Ryder on 11/01/2012 - 03:24 pm.


    I support efforts to make all citizens aware of the adverse health effects of the foods we consume and the importance of a sound diet for long term health. I am struck, however, by the position advocated by this article. Sugar, by itself, is a relatively safe product. The problem is how much we consume in our diets and the effects of high levels of consumption. Of course the sugar industry will not take action to warn consumers of the health effects of long term consumption of high levels of sugar. Nor will the soda industry. Consumers need to read labels, examine their intake of sugar and make informed decisions as to what they consume.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 11/01/2012 - 04:15 pm.

      Still . . . .

      guidelines would be useful. What one person considers a “high level” may be different than that for another if all they’re going on is personal experience and anecdotal evidence.

      Having some guidelines arrived at through legitimate peer-reviewed scientific studies (not unduly influenced by conflicts of interest) should always be the metric for these kinds of questions.

  2. Submitted by John Weaver on 11/02/2012 - 05:09 pm.

    Deception and fructose

    Don’t be afraid to say fructose is our biggest public health problem and will bankrupt the nation.
    Since 1980 population and rat studies made it very likely fructose was the trigger for at least a10 fold increase in expression of genetic predispositions to disease since 1900. Fructose increases in many cell types besides liver when sugar, HFCS and fruit is eaten. Fructose also increases in all cells when blood glucose is elevated. Now many of the exact mechanisms of the adverse effects of fructose are known. So it is very strange that no effective action has been made to warn the public by universities, AMA, American Diabetes Association, 60 minutes, public schools public health officials or politicians.
    Since you are giving reasons you might tolerate my reasoning of why so much confusion, brain washing and deception exist on this subject. My take is simplistic. I suspect many groups (corporations, governments, universities, non-profits, AMA, media groups etc., even remotely related to nutrition or health), hire intelligent people to advise them. Intelligent people look at the data like I did and conclude that if folks ever learn fructose is triggering a huge increase in appetite, genetic disease expression and disabilities their group will suffer from loss of credibility, sales or donations. Once everyone is advised and acts accordingly the reports are destroyed or hidden and any knowledge of problem is forgotten.

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