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How the powerful sugar industry manipulated U.S. public health policy

You’d think that the United State’s public health officials would make recommendations based only on unbiased and substantiated science. But you would be wrong.

chl susan logo2As reported online in the New York Times, a researcher from the University of California, San Francisco recently published a paper in the JAMA Internal Medicine suggesting that “Five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.” The study showed that a group of experts working together, funded by the sugar industry, created recommendations that downplayed the role of sugar in the development of obesity and associated epidemics of diabetes and heart disease, and instead demonized fat.

In 1967, At least three Harvard scientists, selected by the Sugar Research Foundation, an industry-backed trade group, received substantial compensation ($50,000 — a lot of money at the time) to publish favorable data associated with sugar consumption.

sugar-in-beveragesAccording to the L.A. Times, “The resulting article…concluded there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease.” The article continued, “Researchers overstated the consistency of the literature on fat and cholesterol while downplaying studies on sugar, according to the analysis”.

Mark Hegsted, one of the selected researchers, subsequently served as the head of nutrition for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and was instrumental in drafting the first U.S. dietary guidelines…which recommended cutting all types of fat in the diet, without putting a limit on sugar.

The JAMA study concluded, “Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry–funded studies.”

So, is all industry research suspect? My colleague Ted Kyle, Chair of the Obesity Action Advocacy Committee, and blogger for notes, “Unfortunately, the issues that should be at the center of this discussion are missing. Scientific rigor and critical thinking are not really mentioned…bias can come from industry. It can also come from academic researchers who are deeply, emotionally invested in an idea. It can come from government agencies invested in policies and ideologies. Even nonprofit foundations have their biases. Simply dismissing research funded by industry is a poor substitute for critical thinking.”

yogurt-kids-friendly-1620x800-810x400Ted got me thinking (we were messaging back and forth from Pittsburgh, PA to Cuenca, EC, thank you, Facebook.)

The commodity organizations that produce foods naturally high in fat (my italics), like the egg board, and the almond board, and the dairy council have for years had to fund research to counteract the false conclusions pushed by the sugar lobby to demonize all fat. Their industries and farmers suffered. It is their industry research that has contributed to the scientific body of knowledge that shows that fats are not necessarily harmful or the cause of obesity.  Some fats are more healthful than others, and that foods high in dietary cholesterol — for example, eggs and shrimp — aren’t necessarily contributors to heart disease.

So is all industry-funded research false? I don’t think so.

The good news is that this is old news. For many years dietitians and health experts have been pushing back against the recommendations to cut all fat, using new and important research that links some fats to better health.  Researchers, health professionals and policy makers who pay attention to research have been pushing the USDA to restrict sugar, citing global studies pointing to the relationship between excessive sugars and soaring rates of obesity and related diseases.

read-the-labelAnd just this past January the USDA issued new dietary guidelines, eliminating the blanket restriction of cholesterol, and for the first time putting a limit on added sugars. As reported on CNN Health, current guidelines recommend a “healthy eating pattern” with limited sugar and saturated fat, less salt and more vegetables and whole grains.

The U.S. recommendation for sugar is 10% of your daily calories. If you’re eating a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet that’s about 50 grams, or 12 ½ teaspoons of added sugar.

One can of regular soda has about 11-12 teaspoons of added sugar. Most people are drinking and eating far more daily…more than double the amount.

One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams. Divide 50 grams by 4, about 12-½ teaspoons of added sugar. One teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories. 12 ½ times 16 equals 200 calories — empty ones.

The World Health Organization similarly recommends no more than 10% of daily calories from added or “free” sugars, and also proposes a “conditional” 5% limit. Great Britain takes a stronger stand and states that free or added sugars “shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.”

You’ve probably noticed that in Latin America just like in North America people eat a lot of sugar.  It is everywhere. From sodas to energy drinks to ice cream and desserts…most almuerzos come with juice sweetened with added sugar. Here in Cuenca, kids (and adults) walk down the street sucking on those flavored stick ices in a plastic tube; I see the empty wrappers everywhere. Ecuadorian health ministers cite overweight and obesity as a national health concern, especially in the younger population, and many experts link it to sugar, sugar, sugar.

Read the Labels

alto-en-azucarWhereas in the U.S. the nutrition facts label still doesn’t separate out grams of added sugar from total grams of carbohydrate (hopefully soon, but the sugar lobby has been fighting it), in Ecuador grams of added sugar is displayed clearly. Ecuador, like Britain, displays the “traffic light” “go, slow, whoa” labels on processed and packaged foods, telling you at a glance if a product is alto (high-red), medio (medium-yellow), or bajo (low-green) in a particular nutrient.

Always read the ingredients list first. Ingredients are listed in descending order and start with the ingredient that takes up the most volume or weight. If sugar is near the top of the list, the food is likely to be high in added sugars.

Although sugar is a carbohydrate, all carbohydrates do not contain added sugar. Yogurt is a good example. A cup of unsweetened, natural yogurt contains about 11 grams of carbohydrate in naturally occurring lactose, therefore the grams of “sugars” line below the grams of carbohydrate should also read just 11 grams of sugar. But in a sweetened yogurt there may be double or triple the amount of carbohydrate in the form of added sugar.

many-ways-to-say-sugarAnd there are dozens of ways to say “sugar!” Sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose — anything with the “ose” suffix means sugar. Cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, even organic sugar is just sugar, after all.

Sugar is not poison, it is…sugar. It is sweet, it tastes good, it has calories, refined sugar offers no nutrients, and humans have been enjoying it in different forms for thousands of years. Natural, unrefined sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are sweet and have minute amounts of nutrients, but they’re not health foods, they are sweeteners. Sugar won’t make you sick but too much sugar will. When everything you drink is sweetened, then that’s what your taste buds expect. Some people call that a “craving” for sweet-tasting foods. Take a look at this 50 year-old video from Jack LaLanne. He knew what he was talking about, all those years ago.

Sources: New U.S. dietary guidelines limit sugar, rethink cholesterol. Big Fat Sugar Science Arouses Passions.

JAMA Internal Medicine.  Food Industry Funding of Nutritional Research. Science Now. Sugar industry funded research to cast doubt on sugar’s health hazards, report says. How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat.

NHS Choices. How does sugar in our diet affect our health?  Jack LaLanne “Sugarholics”.

6 thoughts on “How the powerful sugar industry manipulated U.S. public health policy

  1. great article Susan!!! Thanks so much! you wrote an article recently about saw palmetto – meant to comment on that one too – I missed that opportunity – I really appreciate your insight and research! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for the information Susan. The edible oil industry did much the same misdirection, and still are. See ‘The oiling of America’ on YouTube.

  3. You’re welcome, David. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m always looking for interesting topics, so if there’s something you think needs to be explored, feel free to contact me. Susan

  4. People have been eating refined sugar for thousands of years??? Perhaps we should define “refined.”
    The “experts” referred to here were recently reported by leading online news networks to be researchers bribed by the sugar industry, and shockingly, the FDA itself had knowledge and participated in one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated against those it exists to protect.
    And yes, sugar is only part of the perverse scheme. The best treatment of the fats and oils part, and the differences between the good and the bad saturated fats and oils, is discussed remarkably in the book Eating’ After Eden, by Sylvia Zook, PhD, who I think now lives in Ec.
    Oh, and I also learned from this book that while it is true all carbs do not contain refined sugar, they all become blood glucose eventually, even complex carbs.
    Thanks for this timely info for us willing to pay the price for good health in our sixties, It ain’t easy!

  5. Hola Lester, I wrote, “… humans have been enjoying it in different forms for thousands of years.” All carbohydrates is transformed into glucose in your body for energy…actually, when you don’t eat enough carbohydrate, to supply energy your body first draws on glycogen from your liver, and when that’s depleted, your body can produce glucose from fats and proteins but that creates a chemical imbalance. Fuel your body with a balance of fats, proteins and carbs.

  6. Thank you Susan for your article as well. So what do we use in place of sugar that’s not full of chemicals? Ive heard of raw honey recently but where is it sold here? In thinking over the recently broadcasted series, Truth About Cancer, it’s brought up how sugar is involved in creating cancers. And then Beyond Diet, they say anything that isn’t a ‘whole’ food, like unpronounceable ingredients on labels, the body doesn’t recognize and stores as fat!? Yikes, and all these years I knew sugar was bad for me so I opted for sweeteners whose ingredients only a chemist can pronounce! Then! Beyond Diet says artificial sweeteners build into fat cells, including Splenda, Equal, Sweet n Low! If the body is fed a whole food the body knows how to break it down and it’s all good. So these seemingly harmless artificial sweeteners with unpronounceable ingredients actually build fat? That food labels saying ‘For Diabetics’ are doing real damage to diabetics because the ingredients are buried in the misleading ingredients lists. Sugar isn’t a whole food, it’s really a great tasting toxic carcenoid that feeds cancer cells, contributes to diabetes, heart disease and more.
    On the USA government EPA web site it’s shocking to see the number of nonfood items that we’ve all grown up with like Dawn, Tide, Pledge, Johnson & Johnson etc are known cancer causing products yet they’re being produced in the USA when China and the EU won’t allow those ingredients beyond their borders. No one is out there protecting the consumer it seems in the USA. Much as I love my sweet treats in Cuenca, where can we find raw honey here?

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