by Marion Nestle
Nov 2 2012

Mother Jones: How the industry minimized (and minimizes) the health effects of sugars

One of the great ironies of food politics these days is this: while journalists and scientists are increasingly documenting the health consequences of diets way too high in added sugars, the producers of two forms of those sugars—sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—are doing everything they can to decrease their rivals’ market shares.

Once the election is over, I will write about the ugly legal battles between the producers of sugar cane and beets (sucrose) and the corn refiners who produce HFCS.  But in the meantime, don’t miss the current issue of Mother Jones.

It has just published an investigative report by journalist Gary Taubes and dental health administrator Cristen Kearns Couzens:  Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies: How the industry kept scientists from asking: Does sugar kill?

Their report is a detailed account of how the sugar industry manipulated scientists and government officials into overlooking the health problems caused by overconsumption of sugars and instead focusing on overconsumption of dietary fat (both removed from their caloric context, alas).

Their winning campaign, crafted with the help of the prestigious public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, had been prompted by a poll showing that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes.

With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling, which, the Silver Anvil application boasted, made it “unlikely that sugar will be subject to legislative restriction in coming years.”

The report is accompanied by riveting background information, examples of sugar advertisements, and formerly confidential documents:

Much of what’s in this report came as news to me, but is consistent with what I know.  Here, for example, is a comparison of the increasingly complicated and obfuscated sugar recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 1980 through 2010:

  • 1980     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1985     Avoid too much sugar.
  • 1990     Use sugars only in moderation.
  • 1995     Choose a diet moderate in sugars.
  • 2000    Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars.
  • 2005     Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH eating plan.
  • 2010     Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.

“Avoid too much sugar” is still good advice.
And here’s a photo of a billboard in Guatamala, taken a couple of years ago by anthropologist Emily Yates-Doerr.  If the sugar industry isn’t selling enough sugar here, might as well push it onto people in emerging economies.

Curl up with Mother Jones over the weekend , hopefully one free of hurricanes (I, along with many others, am still waiting for electricity, water, and heat).

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  • TJ

    Marion, I just want to say that while it is clear that you and Gary Taubes disagree on some fundamental issues, I really respect that you can acknowledge and appreciate his work and contributions to our understanding of nutrition, obesity, and disease. The same cannot be said for many other nutrition leaders, which is a shame, because we all have similar goals, and we all benefit from taking the time to acknowledge and understand others’ work whether it supports or challenges our preconceptions.

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  • Agree with TJ. Just curious though, in terms of quantity, what “too much sugar” means for Dr. Nestle, or perhaps if there’s such a thing as “too little sugar”. On a conventional 2,000 low-fat, food pyramid style diet, this can mean several hundred grams of starch and/or sugar per day.

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  • I really liked Taubes’ and Couzens’ coverage of the sugar industry’s influence on older dietary guidance and on nutrition science research. But they misrepresented the 2010 Dietary Guidelines evidence reviews. They said USDA reported evidence “that sugary drinks don’t make adults fat,” when USDA found exactly the opposite. The messages accompanying the new MyPlate graphic say, “Drink water instead of sugary drinks.” Very odd that Taubes and Couzens describe the 2010 guidelines as if this were still the 1980s when everybody worried about total fats and dismissed concern about sugar.

  • Sugar still tends to get a pass.
    For example: The nutrition info for recipes printed in the magazine Cooking Light include ‘Total fat’ ‘Saturated fat’ and ‘Total carbohydrate’ but DO NOT include ‘Sugar’. This is a big blind spot since a big chunk of their recipes are for desserts.

    While the scientific consensus has shifted, the popular concept of healthy eating still means avoiding fat. Fat is seen as actively bad for you (it will clog your arteries) but sugar is seen as merely ’empty calories’ (except for your teeth. It will be a long time before most people can wrap there minds around the idea that it’s Coca Cola that is clogging their arteries.

    It’s an uphill battle when people like David Katz MD (director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center) push back against the idea that sugar is particularly harmful. See: Sugar Isn’t Evil: A Rebuttal.

    PS It was Katz’s crackerjack scientific reasoning i.e. “Fructose is hummingbird fuel, how could it possibly be harmful to humans. Hummingbirds are cute, ergo: what they eat must be good for humans” that lead me to try a high fiber diet consisting entirely of eucalyptus leaves because I find koala bears adorable.

    It didn’t turn out very well.

  • Is this a new revelation about sugar?

    I think not … take a look at this video from the early 60s … at the 2:30 mark, see if the advice from a long time ago is any different than what you would receive today …

    Ken Leebow
    Author: 101 Incredible Diet, Health, and Lifestyle Tips

  • Excellent article. Very thorough and informative. Unfortunately, the companies that produce our food products also have the resources to lobby for legislation that permits deceptive labeling. Most recently, the dairy industry has lobbied the FDA to ban the requirement that dairy products be clearly labeled with “Contains Aspartame” labels if the product contains the controversial artificial sweetener. More on that story can be found here:

    It’s frightening, particularly for individuals who want to steer clear of both sugar and artificial sweeteners.

  • Taubes is good at misrepresenting a great many things, like the entire history of scientific research of the association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. The man’s middle name should be Revisionist.

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