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.”
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.