Nothing Can Sweeten This Bad News for the Sugar Industry

Source: David Silverman/Getty Images
Source: David Silverman/Getty Images

Climate change, lung cancer, and now cavities?

For decades, big business has been at odds with the government over regulation of certain industries. The desire to clamp down, from the government or public’s perspective, is the result of undue harm being caused by industry as a result of use of specific products, or simply externalities caused by product creation. Businesses, on the other hand, are simply trying to maximize profits — at any cost.

This age-old drama is playing out before us right now between the fossil fuel industry and government regulators trying to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. We saw it a couple of decades ago between public health advocates and the tobacco industry. But we’re just learning of a similar battle that took place even earlier than that between the dental and sugar industries.

New analysis of old documents from the 1960s and 1970s, recently published in the medical journal PLOS Medicine, found that the American sugar industry put up a hefty fight against research into the main causes of tooth decay, which was being conducted by the U.S. National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) at the time.

The smoking gun? “The documents show that the sugar industry knew that sugar caused dental caries as early as 1950 and did not attempt to deny the causative role of sucrose in tooth decay,” the study says. “Instead, through trade associations, the sugar industry adopted a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harm of sugar consumption, rather than restricting intake.”

That led to a predictable conclusion:

Regulatory science to support sensible and defensible policies to limit added sugar consumption was not pursued in the 1970s because of the alignment of the NIDR’s research priorities with those of the sugar industry. Actions taken by the sugar industry to impact the NIDR’s NCP research priorities, which echo those of the tobacco industry, should be a warning to the public health community.

Obviously, the sugar industry had a vested interest in doing what they did, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s easy to compare to the tobacco and fossil fuel industries, particularly now that we can look back in hindsight and see the effects. Sugar consumption has gone up by more than 30% between 1977 and 2010, according to a study conducted by The Obesity Society, and reported by Science Daily late last year.

“Added sugars increase excess energy and reduce nutrient density in our diets, often contributing to weight gain and obesity,” said Elyse Powell, Royster Fellow at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and author of the study. “We’ve long known that the high amount of added sugars in our diets is concerning; and the 30% increase is only the average consumption among adult Americans.”

Looking at roughly when the sugar increase began — in the mid-to-late 1970s, it’s not hard to think that the sugar industry’s efforts to undermine research and the increase of sugar intake could be linked. This, despite the fact that more and more evidence has piled up revealing just how damaging sugar intake can be to our health. Powell pointed out that weight gain and obesity are often byproducts of a sugar-heavy diet, but the list is much longer. Diabetes is also a common result, as is an increased risk of dying from heart disease, according to Harvard Medical School.

Yet, in spite of mounting evidence and logic, the sugar industry has continued to grow in both scope and power. Today, the average American consumes about 20 teaspoons a day, per the American Heart Association, when it’s recommended that we only consume, at most, six. Clearly, Americans are hooked on the good stuff — and that may be more serious than just a funny quip. Sugar has also been shown to have addictive qualities.

So, looking back at the sugar industry’s earlier efforts to stifle research and advance its agenda, it’s safe to say that the mission was accomplished. Americans are hooked on sugar, and that may be, in part, because information was suppressed decades ago.

Will “Big Sugar” eventually earn a reputation similar to the tobacco or fossil fuel industries? Probably not. But a little retribution on behalf of the public would most certainly be sweet.

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