How Big Sugar Betrays Science (And the World)

Big Sugar’s tactics are harsh in the food industry.

Sugary products from corporate giants like Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Mars maintain a strong presence in marketing campaigns, grocery stores, and even schools, thanks in part to some of the most aggressive marketing we’ve seen from the food industry. Their overbearing presence in our lives reveals a startling amount of political savviness.

While Big Sugar’s marketing tactics have always been relatively problematic—their tendency to market directly to children, for example—a recent online edition of the medical journal BMJ has shed some light on another angle that Big Sugar is working: the manipulation of clinical research.

The published study found that two-thirds of researchers responsible for advising the government on nutritional matters received funding in the early 2000s from companies under the ponderous umbrella of Big Sugar. Among them were Coca-Cola, Nestle, and the Sugar Association. The conflict of interest speaks for itself, and experts agree:

“There is a tremendous amount of debate around these issues, being largely driven by people who have different agendas regarding politics rather than an agenda which is to evaluate the evidence and tell people what we think it’s saying,” said Laura Schmidt, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. “Because it’s a very political issue, the science gets caught in the middle and can get spun in all directions.”

Although the study pertained to the UK, Big Sugar’s conflict of interest is hardly exclusive to that country. As for the US, a 2013 study revealed that six out of 17 systematic reviews (scientific studies) may have been compromised by similar conflicts of interest.

Such blatant conflict of interest is alarming on its own, but it gets worse when you factor in the rise of childhood obesity and the degree to which the trend is being ignored by Big Sugar. According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years. This leads to a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and bone/joint problems for the general population.

Sugar’s dominant presence, in all forms of marketing, has undoubtedly contributed to this growing obesity issue among the world’s youth. An issue like obesity causes 50 billion in health care costs per year in the United States alone, yet politicians continue to ignore or delay measures that would limit or prevent the role of Big Sugar in national nutritional advising or scientific research.

And there’s no denying that the sugar industry has been expanding its influence significantly over the past decade. The sugar industry formed alliances beyond the 15 states and districts where sugar refineries were available, extending their grasp beyond their original niche. This expanding reach was a huge reason why Big Sugar successfully defended a 1 billion, 10-year subsidy plan in a proposed House farm bill. Their sway in the world of clinical research first became known to the public with the wave-making 2007 report that found links to Big Sugar funding in over 100 studies about sugary beverages.

Nobody will begrudge a multi-billion-dollar corporation from using secrecy to safeguard their trade secrets; there’s an entire branch of law dedicated to the practice, after all. But when they use it to undermine what should be an unassailable institution—scientific inquiry—you know there’s a problem.

Indeed: there’s a United States federal law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which specifically targets the bribery of foreign officials. Whether Big Sugar’s influence over government nutritional advisors constitutes this kind of ethical breach remains to be seen, but the attention is now being turned to the sugar lobby and its practices are encouraging.

There was another incident in 2007 that brought public attention to Big Sugar’s alarming reach. It occurred when former dentist Cristin Couzens provided documents that revealed the Sugar Association’s PR and marketing strategies in the ‘70s. The details were clear in that the Sugar Association attempted to deflect public concern over high sugar intake and its health risks, a move comparable to the tobacco industry’s tireless attempts to downplay the health concerns associated with cigarettes.

“It’s a little bit shocking to me that an industry would be rewarded for manipulating scientific evidence,” Couzens told CBC News. “[In 1976] many people thought sugar was harmful, the sugar industry wanted to turn public opinion toward thinking sugar was safe, so they forged public opinion on how the public viewed the effects of sugar,” she said.

With the Big Sugar industry continuing to influence scientific research with no clear end in sight, the best practice consumers can take is to ingest sugar in moderation, and—if possible—avoid soft drinks or any other form of “empty calories” that are especially high in sugar.

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