The sugar industry worked closely with health organizations in the 1960s and early 1970s to develop dental policies that didn’t discourage children from eating sugar.
That’s the conclusion of a report by University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers that was published today in the PLOS Medicine journal.
The report states the sugar industry used several tactics to influence research priorities in the 1971 U.S. National Caries Program (NCP) to help prevent cavities, or caries.
The report authors said the industry adopted a strategy to prevent public health interventions that would have reduced sugar consumption.
Instead, the report states, their recommendations included research on enzymes to break up dental plaque and on a potential vaccine for tooth decay.
The report authors said the industry proceeded with the strategy even though they knew as early as 1950 that sugar damages teeth. The dental industry was in favor of restricting sugar intake.
The authors added that 78 percent of one report submitted by the sugar industry to the U.S. National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) was eventually incorporated word-for-word into the NIDR’s first request for funding to the NCP.
The authors also said the National Institutes of Health (NIH) worked closely with Big Sugar after deciding in 1969 that focusing on a reduction in sugar consumption was not a practical public health approach.
“The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake,” said first author Cristin Kearns, DDS, MBA, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar who discovered the industry documents. “It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than forty years ago.”
“Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting the public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits over public health,” added co-author Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at UCSF.
The Sugar Association issued a statement today, vehemently denying the accusations. The group said the authors of the report were dredging up documents from the time Richard Nixon was president to produce a fear-inducing narrative.
“It is clear that the authors’ use of attention-grabbing headlines and scare tactics that liken consumption of all-natural sugar, or sucrose, which is naturally found in vegetables, fruits and fruit juices, to a known carcinogen is a ‘textbook’ play from the activist agenda,” the association said. “Sugar has been safely used by our mothers and grandmothers for hundreds of years.”
The association added people can reduce the risk of cavities by moderating sugar intake along with drinking fluoridated water as well as brushing and flossing regularly. They noted Americans now drink more non-fluoridated bottled water, which may contribute to a decline in dental health.
“The reality is experts in this field agree,” the association statement concluded. “Cavities are lessened by a combination of smart snacking choices, whether sugar, starches, juices, or any other fermentable carbohydrate; and responsible dental care, particularly reducing the time of carbohydrate exposure to the teeth before brushing.”
The UCSF researchers analyzed 319 internal sugar industry documents from 1959 to 1971. The documents were discovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois. They include 1,551 pages of correspondence among sugar industry executives, meeting minutes, and other relevant reports.
The Illinois papers were compared to documents at the NIDR to determine how the sugar industry influenced policy.