The Big Sugar revelations serve as a reminder of large companies’ willingness to push aside inconvenient information in pursuit of their economic interests.
In May, 1994, a large FedEx box arrived at the office of Dr. Stanton Glantz, a public-health expert at the University of California, San Francisco, who specialized in tobacco research. Inside the box were four thousand pages of internal memoranda and correspondence dating back to the nineteen-fifties from the files of Brown & Williamson, which was then the third-largest tobacco company in the United States. The documents, which became known as the Cigarette Papers, showed that research funded by Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry had demonstrated the addictive qualities of nicotine and the health hazards of smoking years before these things became public knowledge, and that tobacco companies had nonetheless embarked on a public campaign to deny what they knew to be true, from their own research, and to cast doubt on the dangers of cigarettes.
In contrast to the cloak-and-dagger manner in which the Cigarette Papers came to light, this week’s revelation that Big Sugar engaged in dubious machinations to hide the potential health effects of sugar consumption came about from slogging through document archives in libraries around the country. But the implications of that work, performed by Cristin Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at U.C.S.F., and published this week in an article titled “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research,” in the American Medical Association’s journal of internal medicine, are similarly dismaying.
The documents Kearns uncovered show that the Sugar Association, in the early sixties, began a systematic effort to change public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs,” with the goal of getting the public to consume more sugar and less fat. As part of that effort, John Hickson, a sugar-industry executive, funded research by Harvard scientists that was intended, explicitly, to exculpate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and to cast blame instead on saturated fat. That research resulted in a 1967 article in the New England Journal of Medicine making that exact case. One of the scientists Hickson funded eventually became head of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he helped author a draft of what would become the government’s first official nutritional guidelines—guidelines that recommended a low-fat diet.
It is true that there was no consensus in the sixties—and, indeed, there’s no real consensus today—about exactly how much the consumption of either sugar or saturated fat contributes to coronary heart disease (though most health authorities these days suggest both may be important). But the fact that the science of the time was uncertain doesn’t let the sugar industry off the hook for its influence-peddling, since what the Sugar Papers show is that the industry was essentially uninterested in science. Instead, it was interested in getting people to eat more sugar by painting sugar consumption as anodyne in its health effects and, just as important, by painting fat consumption as dangerous. (…)
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