Quirks and Quarks

Corruption, bribery and cover-ups: Is the sugar 'conspiracy' too sweet?

A historian says our modern sugar problem is not a result of malfeasance and scientific dishonesty.
The health risks of excess sugar are the focus of an evolving debate in nutrition - but were they ignored because of a conspiracy? (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

It's been called by some "the sugar conspiracy." But an American researcher says that like many conspiracy theories, it may not reflect reality. David Johns says that the framing of the sugar industry's influence on scientific research as a conspiracy may be distorting people's understanding of the issues, and hurting our ability to have a well-informed conversation about food and nutrition. 

Over the last several years investigators from the University of California, San Francisco have found sugar industry documents that reveal a long term program to influence and distort health science around sugar. This program involved public relations efforts, funding of scientists thought to be skeptical of sugar's role in obesity and disease, and, they maintain, suppression of science that showed harm from sugar.

One of the UCSF sugar researchers is Dr. Stanton Glantz, was an important figure in revealing the tobacco industry's cover-up and misrepresentation of the health risks of tobacco. He sees disturbing parallels between the two industries. "Strategies that I thought the tobacco companies made up in the '50s, some of those the sugar people had done even before that," Glantz told the CBC's The Fifth Estate.

David Johns says this falls short of a conspiracy. "There's no question that the sugar industry sought to influence the science. They paid for studies, they funded researchers who they thought would produce results that favoured their interests," said Johns, a journalist and PhD candidate with the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University. He also says that the historical evidence doesn't support the idea that without the sugar industry's machinations we would have declared a nutritional war on sugar decades ago.

One can of soda contains more sugar than the American Heart Association recommends for daily consumption. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

The debate over fat vs. sugar

Researchers in the 1960s were already trying to understand the roots of our current crisis of overnutrition. With the surplus of food and diet changes in wealthy countries, obesity was on the rise, along with related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. Nutritionists were looking for the culprit. At that time much of the research focus was on dietary fat — from meat, eggs and dairy. Some researchers were also pointing fingers at sugar.

It was in this context that the sugar industry's program of funding and attempting to influence science was taking place. But Johns points out that they were not alone. "There were all kinds of different industries that were trying to shape the science, [such as] the dairy industry, or the cheese industry or the egg industry." He says direct funding by all of these groups to nutrition scientists — without disclosure — was common at the time.

One case researchers focused on is that of Harvard researcher Mark Hegsted. In 1967 he and colleagues at Harvard published an influential review in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluating the evidence as to whether dietary fat or carbohydrates — including sugar — were most responsible for obesity and illness.

Their conclusion was that fat was the enemy to focus on, and this study had great influence on nutrition policy and the emphasis on cutting fat and cholesterol in the '80s and '90s. In 2016 the UCSF group, led by Dr. Cristin Kearns, revealed that this study was funded by the sugar industry — which had not been disclosed before. The study, says Kearns, was suspect not just because of its funding, but also because the work shows evidence of bias — the sugar research and the fat research were not evaluated the same way.  "Hegsted and his colleagues applied a double standard to their critique of the epidemiologic, experimental, and mechanistic evidence linking sugar to heart disease," Kearns told Quirks & Quarks.

But Johns, who has studied Mark Hegsted's papers, defends the influential Harvard nutritionist. "He was regarded as a very data-driven scientist who was very scrupulous." Though much of Hegsted's work was industry funded, his conclusions did not always toe the industry line. Johns points to one of his studies, funded by the American Meat Institute, in which he found that people needed little meat and that vegetarian diets could provide adequate protein for health. "So he was known to come to conclusions that went against the interests of his sponsors." 

Guidelines published by the World Health Organization say the world is eating too much sugar and people should slash their sugar intake to 5-10 per cent of their overall calories. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)
Scientists caught in the crossfire of the 'diet wars'

This all, of course, has more significance in the context of the current debate about sugar. There's no doubt that we in the Western world eat too much sugar — much more than medical authorities suggest is healthy. Much of it is in processed foods, and a lot of that is there as a substitute for the butter and oil that was removed from those foods as a result of the nutritional campaign against fat. The conservative consensus today is that it is too many total calories — from fat or from sugar — that makes us obese and ill. Some researchers, however, suggest that there is evidence that excess sugar is worse than fat and comes with unique health risks. This continues to be an evolving topic in nutritional research.

David Johns suggests that these disagreements in science, and what seems like lurches back and forth in nutrition advice, shouldn't be painted as conspiracy narratives. "Science does have twists and turns in it," he says. "If every twist and turn is perceived as being caused by some malevolent playbook or dark force, we don't develop a proper understanding about how science actually works, to allow for scientists and policy makers to make errors and not have their reputations sullied."