Few people would take the sugar industry at its word were it to tell us that sugar is a safe food and can be liberally consumed to boot. But when sugar’s purported safety is backed by medical experts and other authorities, people may very well begin to believe it.
In an investigative report published in the latest issue of Mother Jones, Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens expose the Sugar Association for a campaign that was so successful at changing the way that sugar is perceived by the scientific community and the public at large that it earned the association’s president and director of public relations the Silver Anvil award for excellence in “the forging of public opinion.”
In the years leading up to this PR campaign, consumers and doctors had soured on sugar — suspected of causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease — with consumption declining 12 percent in just two years. So, as Taubes and Couzens report, the Sugar Association had to take action:
With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling.
In face of mounting evidence linking sugar to chronic disease, the Sugar Association set about defusing the public’s fears with some studies of its own. According to Taubes and Couzens, the industry spent ”roughly $655,000 between 1975 and 1980 on 17 studies designed, as internal documents put it, ‘to maintain research as a main prop of the industry’s defense’… Most of the cash was awarded to researchers whose studies seemed explicitly designed to exonerate sugar” (my emphasis). “Rather than do definitive research to learn the truth about its product, good or bad,” Taubes and Couzens continue, “the association stuck to a PR scheme designed to ‘establish with the broadest possible audience — virtually everyone is a consumer — the safety of sugar as a food.’”
A Food & Nutrition Advisory Council was established by the association to “defend sugar’s place in a healthy diet.” Among the 8 experts recruited to the council was Frederick Stare, founder and chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who, according to the Mother Jones report, had deep ties with the sugar industry, which provided funding to his department for various studies over many years. Led by Stare, the Food & Nutrition Advisory Council drafted an 88-page white paper, “Sugar in the Diet of Man,” that compiled “historical evidence and arguments that sugar companies could use to counter the claims of… ‘enemies of sugar.’”
This paper, along with a number of industry-backed studies, later became the basis of the FDA’s ruling that sugar is safe to eat, with one official announcing in 1986, “We can now state categorically that there is no evidence at all to link sugar with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, hyperactivity or heart disease.” Meanwhile, at the USDA, where Stare sat on the advisory committee, dietary guidelines had been updated to state that “too much sugar in your diet does not cause diabetes.”
And with that, the sugar industry ran ads in newspapers and magazines exclaiming, “Sugar Is Safe!” The FDA said so. As did medical and scientific experts like Frederick Stare of the Harvard School of Public Health, University of Oregon nutritionist William Connor and University of Washington diabetes expert Edwin Bierman — each one of them, of course, panelists on the Sugar Association’s Food & Nutrition Advisory Council.
You can’t dispute the facts, argued the sugar industry: “there is no substantiated scientific evidence indicating that sugar causes diabetes, heart disease or any other malady.” Never mind that the facts may be skewed, misleading, even wrong.
According to Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco, “the science is in — the medical and economic problems with excessive sugar consumption are clear.” It’s addictive and it’s making us fat and sick, and public opinion is turning against it. The sugar industry, of course, won’t be going down without a fight, and it’ll be a fierce one.
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