The Sugar Industry Isn't as Sweet as It Pretends to Be

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There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Sugar is terrible for you. Much worse than you probably think it is, in fact, because new research found that the sugar industry has engaged in a decades-long plot to manipulate science and minimize the health effects sweets have on the body.

The industry’s sour scientific practices made headlines following a report in JAMA Internal Medicine that came out last week, but it’s not the first time Big Sugar’s been accused of influencing public health policy to serve their own ends. Government watchdogs were looking to crack down on the industry since at least February of last year.

In many ways, the behavior of the sugar industry is suspiciously similar to that of the tobacco industry and its attempts to manipulate research about the health effects of smoking using similarly funded studies that intentionally cast doubt on claims that their products were bad for users. One of the researchers on the report noted that the scientific director of the Sugar Research Foundation in the ‘40s actually left to take a job at the Tobacco Industry Research Committee in 1954.

There are similarities between the tobacco industry and the candy industry.

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The recent study examined tons of archival documents going back to the 1950s and found that the sugar industry sponsored research to throw fat and cholesterol under the bus, playing their roles up in heart disease while downplaying the link between heart disease and little ol’ sugar.

In 1965, the industry’s Sugar Research Foundation sponsored a report led by Harvard nutrition professors that ended up getting published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The report argued that the link between sugar and heart disease really wasn’t that strong and that existing science couldn’t prove it. But that science linking fat to heart disease? It was on the money. Nowhere did the report mention that it had been sponsored by the sugar industry. The journal wouldn’t add a rule requiring the disclosure of possible conflicts of interest for more than a decade.

And this was just one instance of the Sugar Research Foundations dabbling in science; some members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition who receive funding from the sugar industry.

It’s unclear if the sugar industry’s scientific sponsorship was quid pro quo. It’s quite possible that both the industry and the researchers they were paying legitimately thought that fat was worse than sugar. Regardless, it’s not how science should work, and the latest report cautions that “policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies.”

Meanwhile, a friendly reminder from us that you should probably cut back on the sweets.

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