Sweet Lies

September 2, 2011


In 1983, at the 12th annual meeting of the World Sugar Research Organisation, Professor John Reid of the University of Cape Town explained how corporate sponsorship of research works:

There is a hidden agenda in the research support business. Those who accept your support are often perceived to be less likely to give you a bad scientific press. They may come up with the results that cause you problems, but they will put them in a way that leaves you happier than had they emanated from someone not receiving your support. My own observation and comment is that this hidden effect is powerful – more powerful certainly than we care to state loudly, either from the point of view of the honour in science or in industry. It takes a lot to bite the hand that feeds you: a muzzle is a good insurance against unwelcome bites.

In 2003, after unsuccessfully using its scientists to twist the science, the sugar industry in the US is threatening to bring the World Health Organisation to its knees by demanding that Congress end its funding unless the World Health Organization (WHO) scraps guidelines on healthy eating. The threat was described by WHO insiders as tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure they had ever seen from the tobacco lobby.

In a letter to the then director general of WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Sugar Association wrote that it intended to “exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature” of the WHO’s report on diet and nutrition, including challenging its $406 million funding from the US.

The industry took exception to WHO guidelines, which stated that sugar should account for no more than 10% of a healthy diet. It claims that the review by international experts, who decided on the 10% limit, is scientifically flawed, insisting that other evidence indicates that a quarter of our food and drink intake can safely consist of sugar.

In January 2004, the industry enlisted the support of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which sent a letter to WHO challenging its science, using industry-sponsored research to support its contention that there was no link between sugar consumption and obesity.

Blowing the whistle on the behind-the-scenes lobbying, in 2004, BBC’s Panorama aired a documentary which focused on the politics of sugar. It showed how food industry scientists have hijacked the debate and that neutral scientists were warned against dishing out the impact of sugar consumption on obesity. You can read a transcript of the show here.

According to Tim Lobstein, former director of the Food Commission in the UK,

The industry’s tactic is to undermine all that evidence as much as possible. They will put up scientists who offer contrary evidence, they will undermine the credibility of a good scientist, they will fudge and offer contrary evidence to delay any decisions they’re making. They use a whole range of tactics and the result of that is that governments do back off and don’t make the strong statements that they should be making.

One scientist with first-hand experience of the pressure being applied by the sugar industry is Jim Mann, professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Otago, New Zealand.  After his involvement in a study that the industry misrepresented to suggest that sugar was a natural part of a healthy diet, he recalled being “told very clearly that it would be inappropriate for us to say anything bad about sugar in relation to human health, that this would have profound political implications and that we simply should not do so.”

It is somewhat ironic that the most aggressive sugar lobbyists come from the US, which just happens to have the highest obesity level in the world, with 30.6% of adults obese, costing the country $93 billion annually to deal with obesity-related illnesses.

1 Comment for this entry

  • QT says:

    You say that the sugar industry argues that there is no link between sugar consumption and obesity. As a nutrition major, I’m compelled to say to this: “Sorry, what?!”

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