In 1964, a group of researchers published “Dietary Fats and Intestinal Thiamine Synthesis in Rats” in the journal Nutrition Reviews. It tackled the classic sugar versus fat conundrum that has puzzled dieters for decades: What’s worse for health, sugar or fat?
The researchers divided rats into two groups. One group had diets that were 75 percent fat but no sugar, a sort of rodent Whole Foods regimen. It contrasted with the other group of rats, who had a lower fat count—just 15 percent—but 60 percent sucrose as well. The conclusion the team came to? Rats fed sucrose metabolized it as a carbohydrate and developed thiamine deficiency, often leading to heart failure; more complex carbohydrates helped create a gut bacteria that synthesized thiamine.
That paper got the Sugar Research Foundation interested in understanding the role of the white stuff in our microbiome. The foundation—a precursor to today’s Sugar Association—asked a group, referred to as Project 259 and led by Dr. W. F. R. Pover at the University of Birmingham, to study the effect of sugar in the gut between 1967 and 1971. It found that rats and guinea pigs given diets higher in sugar led to higher levels of triglycerides than those fed a standard pellet diet of cereal, soybean, and whitefish meals. That led to higher levels of beta-glucoronidase in urine, a now-proven result of bladder cancer. An internal document later described the Project 259 research as “one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats.” In short: A sugar-heavy diet was connected to heart disease.
But those results never saw the light of day by the now-defunct Sugar Research Foundation, according to a damning new paper published in PLOS Biology from Cristin E. Kearns, Dorie Apollonio, and Stanton A. Glantz. It’s the latest in a series of papers Kearns and Glantz have teamed up on investigating the sugar industry’s clamping down on research in postwar America, suggesting sugar was guilt-free and a healthier substitute to fat.
“Judging by the media and public interest, it basically shows that the sugar industry pretty much behaved the same way the tobacco companies did,” Glantz, a professor of medicine and tobacco control expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Daily Beast. Glantz’s previous work explored the tobacco lobbying industry, with a 2013 paper in Tobacco Control tracing the rise of the Tea Party to tobacco’s efforts to align themselves with libertarians through third party groups staunchly opposing taxation and regulation.
While a similar connection between sugar and the government hasn’t been found yet, Glantz and Kearns have uncovered evidence over the past few years that shows the sugar industry was heavily involved in muffling research that indicated its product was dangerous to health. Scientific journals followed suit, with even the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine publishing a report that suggested that any linkage between sucrose and coronary heart disease was false, and that sucrose was in fact better than starch. (Pover died a few years ago, according to Kearns.)
Pover and Project 259’s original research disappeared for decades, until Glantz and Kearns unearthed it. They suspect that the study was not quite ready for publication and that Pover asked for more funds to ensure accuracy. “They’d been funding it for two years and about $200,000 in today’s money,” Kearns said. “He needed 18 more weeks, but they probably said no.”
“Even the incomplete results are interesting,” Glantz pointed out. “The sugar industry ‘proved’ there were no differences to how sugar calories were metabolized compared to starch calories.”
Which is, of course, totally untrue—and the latest in a slow but steady unraveling of the industry that pushes soda, high fructose corn syrup, and more in the American diet.
And this isn’t even the first time the sugar industry has misrepresented scientific results that would indicate sugar is not as sweet as it might appear. Glantz and Kearns published another industry-rocking report last year in JAMA Internal Medicine that showed the Sugar Research Foundation systematically discounted studies that tied sugar to ill health effects such as cancer, obesity, and heart disease by secretly funding groups in the 1960s and 1970s casting fat as the culprit behind these chronic diseases. The soda industry’s denial of soda’s connection with obesity and other nutritional studies backed by food giants that suggest candy does not affect a child’s weight all fall in the same category.
“These guys are not nice,” Glantz said. “They were distorting the whole process. People would look at you and say you need psychological treatment” for daring to suggest that sugar was not as healthy as it was made out to be.
That made Glantz’s and Kearns’ work especially difficult as they waded through old documents that often showcased conflicting results and confusion about the exact effects of sugar on a diet. Kearns is a professor of dentistry at the University of California, San Francisco, and started researching the sugar industry after attending a dental conference about a decade ago. In a session about diabetes and periodontal disease—two conditions that are affected by sugar intake—she noticed that “no one was talking about reducing sugar to control them.”
“The diet advice was to reduce fat and reduce calories, and all the brochures said that, too,” Kearns told The Daily Beast. “But it’s not what the research and guidelines say. I’m a dentist, and I know: The role of sugar in tooth decay is significant, and it’s the number one chronic disease in children.”
So Kearns teamed up with Glantz, who had made a name for himself uncovering the tobacco industry’s stealthy PR campaign during the 1960s and 1970s to distance itself from lung cancer, funding research that downplayed its health effects, and allowed for advertising that glamorized smoking. The two found internal documents that suggested natural alternatives to sugar, such as the sugar beet industry in Colorado in the 1970s, went out of business. Kearns found that odd, along with the demonization of high fructose corn syrup (a corn product) by the sugar industry, and started delving more into the industry.
Glantz, for his part, said there are “immediate parallels” between the sugar and tobacco industry. The two even shared lobbyists, with several going from tobacco to sugar, explaining the similar PR campaign and philosophy of both. “They wanted to stay on top of the science and be ahead of the science,” Glantz said. “They worked to manipulate the process and prevent a scientific consensus from emerging.”
The fact that the sugar industry funded an alternate study to quash scientific results it had itself found to continue an image of being a sensible item to have in a diet is something that heavily contributed to the very modern American obesity, heart disease, and cancer epidemics, but have also repeatedly been shown to be used in marketing campaigns for impoverished—and often, heavily Hispanic and African-American—communities. “It was what convinced Coca-Cola to use sucrose [instead of high fructose corn syrup],” Kearns pointed out. Glantz added that sugar is seen as pure and unadulterated, something that is innocent and not considered a serious vice or health detraction on the levels of smoking: “You add sucrose to your coffee. You bake with it. You have snack and beverages in it. It’s even in your hamburgers and pizza.”
The sugar industry, for their part, released a statement, saying: “The article we are discussing is not actually a study, but a perspective: a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.” (The report was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute of Health Policy Studies, the UCSF School of Dentistry, and the Nutrition Science Initiative.)
The ubiquity of sugar in our diet, whether we realize it or not, has huge implications not only for our health but also for medical expenses in this country. Glantz and Kearns hope that this most recent paper will pressure the Food and Drug Administration to recommend diets contain less than 10 percent of sugars daily (as of 2011, average sugar consumption hovered in the 15 percent range) and for stricter oversight on nutrition research.
“A lot of people, they ask, ‘Why are you looking at this ancient history? Who cares?’” Glantz said of his work investigating the tobacco and sugar industries and how they funded research. “I always say, ‘Trust me, people will care.’”