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 Their finding is based on historical documents.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.