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Documents Detail Sugar Industry Efforts To Direct Medical Research

Decorations made of sugar. i
Pink Sherbert Photography/Flickr
Decorations made of sugar.
Pink Sherbert Photography/Flickr

Back in 2007, Christin Kearns attended a conference for dentists like herself to learn about links between diabetes and gum disease.

She was handed a government pamphlet titled, "How to Talk to Patients about Diabetes," and was surprised to find that the diet advice didn't mention reducing sugar intake. She said it made her wonder if the sugar industry "somehow impacted what the government can or cannot say about diet advice for diabetics?"

Kearns, now a fellow at the University of California, San Francisco wanted to answer that question. She went on a hunt for industry documents that might yield clues.

After months of online searches, she started uncovering some documents which ultimately led to an archive at the University of Illinois, 1,551 pages of documents that show how closely the sugar industry worked with the federal government during the 1960s and early 1970s, when dentists were trying to find a way to prevent cavities in children.

In an analysis of the documents published Wednesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, Kearns and her collaborators concluded that industry influence starting in the late 1960s helped steer the National Institute of Dental Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, away from addressing the question of determining a safe level of sugar.

"What this paper has shown is that our [NIH] was working toward potentially answering that question," Kearns said. "The sugar industry derailed them from doing the research to help to answer that question, so we're still debating [it] here in 2015."

The documents show that the sugar industry formed an expert panel using all but one member of the government panel that set research priorities, Kearns said. Ultimately, the industry group submitted a report to the government panel and that report became the foundation for research going forward.

"Seventy-eight percent of the sugar industry submission was incorporated into the NIDR's call for research applications. Research that could have been harmful to sugar industry interests was omitted," the authors note in the study.

"What this shows is that sugar interests were running science manipulation in as sophisticated a manner as 'Big Tobacco' was back in the 50s and 60s," said Stanton Glantz, a professor at UCSF, coauthor of the study and longtime anti-tobacco advocate.

The paper "makes it clear that the sugar industry systematically and deliberately adopted strategies to make sure that federal research agencies did not urge the public to cut down on sugar intake as a means to prevent tooth decay," says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University who was not involved in the analysis. "I can attest that the sugar industry is especially aggressive in defending itself against any suggestion to eat less and is following the tobacco industry's playbook."

In a statement, the Sugar Association said it "questions the relevance of attempts to dredge up history when decades of modern science has provided answers regarding the role of diet in the pathogenesis of dental caries."

The statement also says that the authors' "use of attention-grabbing headlines and scare tactics that liken consumption of all-natural sugar ... to a known carcinogen is a 'textbook' play from the activist agenda."

The authors admit their analysis is limited because it "provides a narrow window into the activities of just one sugar industry trade association" and that they could not "interview key actors."

Kearns says there are more documents to be found; she just needs the time and money to do it. And with an eye toward the history of tobacco litigation, she believes litigation is "certainly a possibility" in this case as well. "We've only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding some of the tactics the sugar groups have implemented," she says.

This story was produced by State of Health, KQED's health blog.

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