A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Monday claims the sugar industry distorted scientific research into the effects of the sweetener on humans, going so far as to pay for a “review” that blurred sugar’s role as one of the factors that can cause heart disease.
According to the report, “Big Sugar” paid for research that downplayed any link between an increase in sugar consumption and an increase in heart disease in Americans in the late 1950s.
The research presented in the JAMA paper comes from correspondence exchanged in the 1960s between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard University. As early studies began to question a link between sugar and heart disease, the article says, the Sugar Association was busy crafting a campaign to turn around “negative attitudes” toward their product.
In 1965, the group approved “Project 226,” which set up a fund to pay Harvard researchers nearly $50,000 in today’s money to review material supplied by the industry and produce a report that stated cholesterol and fat were what was causing the increase in heart disease. The report claimed that sugar played no part in heart disease.
“[The review] concluded there was ‘no doubt’ that the only dietary intervention required to prevent coronary heart disease was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat in the American diet,” the study authors wrote in 1967 when the paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The Associated Press reported:
The findings published Monday are part of an ongoing project by a former dentist, Cristin Kearns, to reveal the sugar industry’s decades-long efforts to counter science linking sugar with negative health effects, including diabetes. The latest work, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is based primarily on 31 pages of correspondence between the sugar group and one of the Harvard researchers who authored the review.
In a statement, the Sugar Association said it “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities,” but that funding disclosures were not the norm when the review was published. The group also questioned Kearns’ “continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences” to play into the current public sentiment against sugar.
The Sugar Association said it was a “disservice” that industry-funded research in general is considered “tainted.”
Sugar as a regulated substance
A story from the website Vox features an interview with Robert Lustig, a man who has for years researched the effects of sugar on the human body. Lustig says he thinks sugar should be seen in a different light – and not a good one.
Lustig says his research has shown that sugar is as toxic to the body as alcohol can be because humans can only process so much sugar at a time. Because of that and other factors, Lustig says he thinks the sweetener should be regulated by the federal government.
“Once upon a time, sugar was a condiment. Now it’s a diet staple. That’s a problem, because as it turns out, we as human beings have a limited capacity to metabolize it. … So a little is okay; a lot is not,” Lustig said. The dose determines the poison. The data says that the dose on average that is safe is six to nine teaspoons of added sugar per day. Currently, Americans are at 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. That excess is driving obesity, diabetes, lipid problems, heart disease, cancer, dementia, fatty liver disease — virtually every chronic metabolic disease that you can think of is being driven by this excess of sugar.”
Lustig says he believes there is a strong case for sugar – which is a carbohydrate made up of 12 atoms of carbon, 22 atoms of hydrogen, and 11 atoms of oxygen – being treated by the government as a controlled substance.
“If a substance is abused and addictive, … that’s criteria for regulation,” Lustig told Vox.
“This has all been put into our food by the food industry because they know when they add it, people buy more. It’s addictive — weakly so, but addictive nonetheless. … The definition of addicted is that you know it’s bad for you and you can’t stop anyway, … because the biochemical drive to consume is greater than any cognitive ability to restrain oneself.
“There are two phenomena attached to addiction: one’s called tolerance, the other is withdrawal. It turns out sugar does both of those as well. If a substance is abused and addictive and it contributes to societal problems, that’s criteria for regulation.”
Lustig went on to say in the interview from 2014 that sugar meets what he considers the four criteria a substance should have in order to be regulated.
“There are four things that have to be met in order to consider a substance worthy of regulation. Number one: ubiquity — you can’t get rid of it, it’s everywhere. Number two: toxicity — it has to hurt you. Number three: abuse. Number four: externalities, which means it has a negative impact on society.
Sugar meets all four criteria, hands down.”
Lustig explained that whether he would consumer an unhealthy amount of sugar or not doesn’t matter, he would still be paying for others who do. “How does your sugar consumption hurt me? Well, my employer has to pay $2,750 per employee for obesity management and medicine, whether I’m obese or not.”
Lustig says he is not suggesting that sugar be banned, but that its consumption be reduced.
“So no one is talking about getting rid of it, but in order to solve this public health debacle we have to reduce consumption. The only way to do that for an addictive substance is to reduce availability, and the only way to reduce availability is taxation or restriction of access or banning. Forget banning; that’s out. That leaves taxation and restriction of access — well, that’s regulation.”