The sugar industry buried research that linked sucrose to heart disease 50 years ago, scientists claim.
Today we may be very conscious of how harmful consuming too much sugar can be, but half a century ago this was not the case.
And now researchers have accused sugar trade bodies of acting in a similar way to tobacco companies by “terminating” studies when the evidence would harm their profits.
In the journal PLOS Biology, researchers Cristin Kearns, Dorie Apollonio and Stanton Glantz from the University of California at San Francisco assessed internal sugar industry documents which found that the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), an industry-funded US research organisation, funded animal research to evaluate sucrose’s effects on cardiovascular health.
The study, initially backed by the University of Birmingham, had been looking into the effects of sucrose intake on rodents.
But when it seemed to be pointing to the fact that sucrose consumption could be linked to heart disease and bladder cancer, the SRF (which had changed its name in 1968 to the International Sugar Research Foundation, or ISRF) ended the project and didn’t publish the results.
The SRF - which is linked to the current organisation, the Sugar Association - stopped the funding, claiming the value of the project was “nil.”
The study, called Project 259, also suggested that gut bacteria could help mediate sugar’s adverse cardiovascular effects.
The research, from September 1969, also linked sucrose with an increased risk of bladder cancer.
“This incidental finding of Project 259 demonstrated to ISRF that sucrose vs. starch consumption caused different metabolic effects,” Kearns and her colleagues argue, “and suggested that sucrose, by stimulating urinary beta-glucuronidase, may have a role in the pathogenesis of bladder cancer.”
The study’s findings were described at the time as “one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats,” yet none of the results was published.
“The sugar industry spent considerable money to understand the health effects of sucrose - and were only interested in publishing results that exonerated sucrose,” Kearns said.
She worked with Glantz, who was one of the researchers who helped reveal that the tobacco industry knew nicotine was addictive and caused cancer before the public did.
He believes the sugar industry should not be trusted in scientific debates about sugar.
“They’re out there questioning the science and presenting themselves as a legitimate participant in debates,” Professor Glantz said. “They are still taking the position this is all hokum, that there is no evidence linking sugar consumption and heart disease.
“What they are doing here isn’t science, it’s advocacy. The companies continue to demand a seat at the table for scientific discussions, presenting themselves as experts. What this early history shows is they are very expert. They understood the emerging science, and were doing their best to derail it.”
The Sugar Association, however, have released a statement calling Kearns and Glantz’s paper “a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organisations that are known critics of the sugar industry.”
They say funding was removed from the study because the research was over budget and delayed. “Throughout its history, the Sugar Association has embraced scientific research and innovation in an attempt to learn as much as possible about sugar, diet and health,” they added.
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