January 2, 2018

'Big Sugar' buried evidence of sugar's health harms, researchers allege

Daily Briefing

    A perspective published in PLOS Biology argues the sugar industry buried a 1960s study showing that sugar harms heart health—but the trade group that originally sponsored the study says "potential research findings" had nothing to do with its decision to end the research. 

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    The perspective is based on internal industry documents that researchers at the University of California, San Francisco uncovered and reviewed. The UCSF researchers last year published a review of industry documents revealing that the sugar industry in the 1960s paid prominent nutrition researchers to downplay sugar's connection to heart disease, casting blame instead on saturated fat.

    An unfinished study

    The latest documents focus on an unpublished animal study funded in 1968 by the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group now known as the Sugar Association. The study, called Project 259, examined the connection between sugar and heart health among rats. The foundation recruited W.F.R. Pover, who at the time was a researcher at the University of Birmingham in England, to lead the study.

    According to a September 1969 report by the foundation, Pover found that rats fed sucrose, the main component of cane sugar, produced high levels of an enzyme associated with hardened arteries and bladder cancer. The researchers also found that sugar had an adverse effect on cholesterol and triglycerides, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

    The report stated, "This is one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats."

    However, Pover's request for a funding extension to "conclusively" prove the results was never approved, and the results were never published.

    Reactions

    Stanton Glantz, the lead researcher on the new report and a professor of medicine at UCSF, said the report shows that the sugar industry has downplayed the health harms of sugar for decades.

    The sugar industry "shifted all of the blame onto fats," said Glantz. He added, "This [report] is continuing to build the case that the sugar industry has a long history of manipulating science."

    Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said the sugar industry suppressed research because they didn't like the results. "From what this paper says, the sugar industry was not interested in answering open-ended questions about whether sugar might be harmful to rats or, given preliminary suggestions of possible harm, doing further studies to find out one way or the other," said Nestle. "Instead, it stopped the research when the results looked unfavorable."

    However, the Sugar Association in a statement said the group had reviewed its research archives and determined that Pover's research was halted because it was behind schedule, over budget, and overlapped with an organizational restructuring—"none of which involved potential research findings." The statement continued, "There were plans to continue the study with funding from the British Nutrition Foundation, but for reasons unbeknown to us, this did not occur" (Thielking, "Morning Rounds, STAT News, 11/22; O'Connor, New York Times, "Well", 11/21; Aubrey, NPR, "The Salt", 11/21).

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