Food and Behaviour Research

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22 November 2017 - The Guardian - Sugar industry withheld research effects of sucrose 50 years ago, study claims

Jessica Brown


The link between sugar and increased risk of heart disease is now established, but might have been accepted many years sooner if key findings had been public.


See the latest report on this subject:
See here for more on this long-running scandal.

Sugar’s demise from childhood staple to public enemy can be seen everywhere. Chocolate bars are shrinking, sugary drinks are set to be taxed and our recommended daily sugar intake has been slashed in half. But the battle against sugar might have begun sooner if the industry hadn’t kept secrets to protect its commercial interests, according to new findings.

In 1967, when scientists were arguing over the link between sugar consumption and increased risk of heart disease, researchers now claim that the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF) withheld findings that rats that were fed a high-sugar diet had higher levels of triglycerides (a fat found in the blood) than those fed starch. In a move researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have compared to the tobacco industry’s self-preservation tactics, the foundation stopped funding the project.

A year later the foundation funded Project 259, looking into the effects of sucrose consumption in the intestinal tracts of rats. It found a possible link between sugar consumption and increased risk of bladder cancer, and described the findings as “one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats”. But the ISRF terminated the project’s funding before the experiments were finished, despite the study having already lasted 27 months, and requiring only three more months.

The study, the researchers argue in their new paper, published in the journal Plos Biology, could possibly have had implications for humans, and indicates how ISRF downplayed sugar’s role in cardiovascular disease due to commercial interests.

Kearns says, “ISRF’s primary purpose was, and still is as the Sugar Association and the World Sugar Research Organisation, to sell more sucrose. Our previous paper and this one demonstrate that ISRF’s research program was designed to support its business interests at the expense of the public.”

The problem could be much bigger than the two ISRF studies the researchers have scrutinised. The researchers conclude that the debates we now have on sugar’s effects on our health are potentially rooted in six decades of the sugar industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence.

“ISRF sponsored more than 300 research projects between 1943 and 1972, and its successor organisations continue to fund research,” Keanrs says. “I think it’s safe to say the problem is more widespread than what’s outlined in the paper.”

In response to the paper, the ISFR’s successor, the Sugar Association, said in a statement:

“The article we are discussing is not actually a study, but a perspective: a collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organisations that are known critics of the sugar industry.

“We reviewed our research archives and found documentation that the study in question ended for three reasons, none of which involved potential research findings: the study was significantly delayed; it was consequently over budget; and the delay overlapped with an organisational restructuring … There were plans to continue the study with funding from the British Nutrition Foundation, but, for reasons unbeknown to us, this did not occur.”