by Marion Nestle
Mar 11 2015

Study documents sugar industry influence on dental research in the 1960s and 1970s

A new study in PLoS Medicine provides documentary evidence of sugar industry manipulation of research on dental caries in the 1960s and 1970s.

The paper is a formal presentation of an article in Mother Jones (which I wrote about in a previous post).

The researchers are at UCSF, which sent out a press release:

A newly discovered cache of industry documents reveals that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and ‘70s to develop a federal research program focused on approaches other than sugar reduction to prevent tooth decay in American children.

The archive of 319 industry documents, which were uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois, revealed that a sugar industry trade organization representing 30 international members had accepted the fact that sugar caused tooth decay as early as 1950, and adopted a strategy aimed at identifying alternative approaches to reducing tooth decay.

These approaches, as the article explains, involved encouraging the NIH to do research on mitigating or preventing tooth decay, which is fine in theory, but in practice distracted the dental research community from trying to discourage sugar consumption.

The analysis showed that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sugar industry funded research in collaboration with allied food industries on enzymes to break up dental plaque and a vaccine against tooth decay. It also shows they cultivated relationships with the NIDR and that a sugar industry expert panel overlapped by all but one member with the NIDR panel that influenced the priorities for the NIH tooth decay program. The majority of the research priorities and initial projects largely failed to produce results on a large scale, the authors found.

Understandably, the Sugar Association is not pleased.  Here is what the Sugar Association told Time Magazine:

It is challenging for the current Sugar Association staff to comment directly on documents and events that allegedly occurred before and during Richard Nixon’s presidency, given the staff has changed entirely since the 1970s. However, we are confused as to the relevance of attempts to dredge up history when decades of modern science has provided answers regarding the role of diet in the pathogenesis of dental caries… A combined approach of reducing the amount of time sugars and starches are in the mouth, drinking fluoridated water, and brushing and flossing teeth, is the most effective way to reduce dental caries.

As Stan Glantz pointed out in his blog post, “This sounds similar to the statement from Brown and Williamson Tobacco put out in 1995 in response to our first papers based on tobacco industry documents.”

Distracting researchers from focusing on underlying causes is a strategy perfected by the tobacco industry and copied widely by other industries making potentially harmful products, as shown clearly in the just released film, Merchants of Doubt (a must-see).