No Sugar-Coated Message – UC Researchers Report that the Sugar Industry Influenced Oral Health Research in the 1970s

by Leanna M. Sweha

Last week, three UCSF researchers reported in the open access journal PLOS Medicine that the sugar industry had a major influence on the research agenda of the 1970s National Caries Program. Their finding is based on historical documents. But the authors clearly see a current relevance to this kind of research – as evidence in future lawsuits against the sugar industry.

The authors analyzed over 300 documents from a University of Illinois archive of a chemistry professor who served on the scientific advisory board of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) from 1959 to 1971. The SRF was the predecessor to today’s World Sugar Research Organization (WSRO), a global sugar industry trade association. The documents included correspondence among sugar industry executives, meeting minutes and reports.

The authors also analyzed documents of the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) from the same time period (NIDR was the predecessor to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research).

In 1968, NIDR formed a Caries Task Force with a Steering Committee whose job was to identify research priorities for the National Caries Program.  Among the candidate research areas was development of an animal model to study which foods and beverages were the most decay-causing or “cariogenic.” At that time, foods containing sucrose (table sugar) were suspected of being highly cariogenic, but the data were not conclusive.

During the late 1960s, SRF funded its own research to bolster support for anti-cavity interventions that did not involve reducing sugar intake. One research area was to use enzymes called dextranases to break down the dental plaque that forms after sugar is consumed; another was to develop a vaccine against plaque-forming bacteria.

The NIDR Steering Committee held several meetings in 1969 to evaluate research priorities. SRF also held meetings to determine, as quoted from an SRF memo, “the areas of research that [SRF] should be attacking.” SFR invited the members of the NIDR Dental Caries Task Force to consult on SRF’s dental caries research priorities. All but one of the members of the NIDR Steering Committee attended this meeting.

SRF submitted its findings to the NIDR Caries Task Force in a report called Dental Caries Research-1969. The report recognized the causative role of sugar in tooth decay but downplayed the feasibility of restricting sugar consumption and instead promoted dextranase and caries vaccine research.

NIDR launched the National Caries Research grant program in 1971. According to the authors, a side-by-side comparison showed that 78% of the SRF’s Dental Caries Research-1969 report was directly incorporated into the government’s grant program solicitation, Opportunities for Participation in the National Caries Program. Dextransase, caries vaccine and fluoride research were given high priority in the solicitation. Development of a standard animal model to study the cariogenicity of foods was given low priority.

The authors suggest that the sugar industry is taking a similar approach today in its opposition to proposals regarding added sugar. In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a draft nutrition guideline to reduce intake of “free” sugars (glucose, fructose and sucrose added to food) to less than 10% of daily calories. Also last year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed revisions to its food labeling regulations to require that the nutrition labels on packaged products list “added sugars,” defined as “sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation.”

The authors note that WSRO opposes current proposals with the same argument – that public health interventions to prevent tooth decay should focus on reducing the harms of sugar consumption instead of trying to limit sugar intake.

“The sugar industry’s current position…is grounded in more than 60 years of protecting industry interests. Industry opposition to current policy proposals…should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that industry interests do not supersede public health goals.”

Most interesting are the parallels made to the tobacco industry, which one of the authors, Dr. Stanton Glantz, knows very well. He is the public health researcher who created a website of tobacco company documents that he received in 1994 from an anonymous “Mr. Butts.” The documents have provided critical evidence in government and individual tobacco lawsuits.

The authors comment, “Litigation against tobacco companies has been a major factor in achieving meaningful policy change. Successful litigation could not have been achieved without industry documents research illuminating the strategies and tactics of tobacco companies. This analysis demonstrates that sugar industry documents research has the potential to define industry strategies and tactics, which may potentially prove useful in future litigation.”

Leanna M Sweha, JD, has been a resident of Davis for 20 years.  As a young molecular biologist in a USDA lab working to engineer Roundup-resistant corn, she grew interested in sustainable agriculture.  Fascinated with the legal and policy issues of agricultural genetics, she became an attorney specializing in agricultural and natural resources law.  She has worked for the California Resources Agency and the UC Davis Office of Research.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    on a day when everyone was irate about the cfd, this piece didn’t get nearly enough attention.  in light of our discussion last year on fluoridation, this seemed important.

  2. Tia Will


    I agree that the timing of this article has probably led to less interest than would otherwise have been the case. I am very appreciative of Ms. Sweha’s article. One point in particular stood out for me.

    The authors note that WSRO opposes current proposals with the same argument – that public health interventions to prevent tooth decay should focus on reducing the harms of sugar consumption instead of trying to limit sugar intake.”

    No, no, no …… no.

    The deflection from primary prevention to harm reduction is a common industry ploy. We are currently seeing this in the duplicitous advertising of vaping as only being intended as harm reduction when the evidence is clear that the advertising is strongly geared towards getting adolescents to see vaping as a cool and safe alternative to tobacco smoking although addiction to nicotine is addiction regardless of delivery device and is far more harmful than no delivery of nicotine which should be the goal.

    At the risk of being repetitive and boring, I want to assert again that primary prevention is always a superior alternative to remediation and “harm reduction”” after the harm is done. In this case, primary prevention would be defined as minimizing the amount of simple sugars consumed as the obviously safest and most cost effective approach to dental health as well as a more effective approach to a host of other associated medical problems such as Type II diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and all of the other preventable and costly diseases in which sugars play a  major role.


  3. DavisBurns

    Don’t think this kind of industry funding of research for the benefit of the industry is a thing of the past.  Every time I see Mars supporting an event, I remember the results of  research they fund that become factoids in their advertising.  I see the transfer of technology via innovation parks as the new vehicle for commercializing products good for industry with little to no regard for the public interest. Just because a company can market and profit from a product does not in any way make that product something that is good for the public.  We are conditioned to assume new technology will enhance our lives in some as yet unknown way but the outcome could be negative.  Just because business is generated and the city’s revenues are improved in no way means an product development at an innovation park will enhance our lives.

    As the tobacco industry is mentioned, I will point out the lighting industry uses their model to create a demand for their products and to dismiss the negative consequences of the proliferation of said product. In the next decade we will come to recognize light pollution as the new second hand smoke as the lighting industry grows by six percent every year ending night as our ancestors knew it. The industry not only funds self-serving research at our universities (like the California Lighting Technology Center’s endorsement of blue rich LED street lights) they are also responsible for the propaganda that equates more light at night with public safety that communities are responsible for providing.

  4. Tia Will


    Well spoken with regard to the major processed food companies including Mars. I would also like to point out the limitations of the “technologic advances” will always make life better as regards my specialty.

    The tendency to rely not on sound medical judgment, but on technologic advances has led to a number of undesirable consequences in the field of obstetrics and gynecology where more frequently does not translate into better. One case in point is the dramatic increase in Cesarean deliveries which occurred following the introduction of electronic fetal monitoring without a commensurate increase in improved fetal outcomes when considering low risk pregnancies. We traded the safety and well being of our patients for the false reassurance of better fetal outcomes and hopefully the prevention of lawsuits. However, the first assurance having been false, the benefit in terms of lawsuit prevention never came to fruition. Unfortunately we gave in to the popular belief that more must be better. More monitoring, more interventions, more operations, more complications…. and yet because of our quintessential belief in technology and the belief that more must be better, we have created an ineffective system which we are not able to abandon since it has become the “standard of care”.

    I would argue that the American current “standard of eating” with its emphasis on fast foods, prepared foods, artificial sweeteners and flavorings is leading us to the same unhealthy behavior patterns as did our previous normalization of smoking, automobile dependence , and generally sedentary lifestyle which values convenience and speed over health and well being. This is largely driven by commercials that are constantly depicting happiness and satisfaction as being dependent on the type of car we drive and the type of processed foods that we put on our tables. If one has any doubts about the emphasis and contribution of the Mars company, one has only to look at their brands. Their three main areas of emphasis are on pet food, chocolate ( hardly known as a healthy food although it does have some limited benefits) and their “food” brand which is Uncle Ben’s. Anyone who believes that the best, healthiest source of rice is a box of Uncle Ben’s has indeed been sold a bill of goods. We are being sold a bill of goods that Mars is a company that promotes “feeding the world”.  I think that it is much more likely that we should take them at their word regarding their mission. Per their home page:

    The company’s objective is the manufacture and distribution of food products in such manner as to promote a mutuality of services and benefits among all stakeholders.’ 

    Notice that their stated mission is the “manufacture and distribution of food products” not the growth and distribution of food. I find this linguistic sleight of hand very telling about where a research partnership with Mars is likely to lead us.


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