Skip to main content

How the sugar industry tried to hide the health effects of its product 50 years ago

How the sugar industry tried to hide the health effects of its product 50 years ago


Pour some sugar (science) on meeeee

Share this story

Photo: Shutterstock

About 50 years ago, the sugar industry stopped funding research that began to show something they wanted to hide: that eating lots of sugar is linked to heart disease. A new study exposes the sugar industry’s decades-old effort to stifle that critical research.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recently analyzed historical documents regarding a rat study called Project 259 that was launched in 1968. The study was funded by a sugar industry trade group called the International Sugar Research Foundation, or ISRF, and conducted by W. F. R. Pover at the University of Birmingham. When the preliminary findings from that study began to show that eating lots of sugar might be associated with heart disease, and even bladder cancer, the ISRF pulled the plug on the research. Without additional funding, the study was terminated and the results were never published, according to a study published today in PLOS Biology.

“It helped to derail this issue for quite a long time.”

Last year, based on a review of internal industry documents, the same group of UCSF researchers showed that in the 1960s, ISRF — then known as the Sugar Research Foundation — also paid Harvard scientists to obscure the relationship between sugar and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead. Today’s study adds to the evidence that the sugar industry helped steer public discourse away from the potentially negative health effects of consuming added sugars through its research funding.

“Had [Project 259] actually been completed and published, it would have advanced the general scientific discussion about the sugar heart disease link,” says study co-author Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “And they prevented that from happening. It helped to derail this issue for quite a long time.”

Researching the health effects of certain foods is critical because it helps shape the federal government’s dietary guidelines, which recommend how Americans should eat in order to prevent disease. But nutrition science is sometimes influenced by industry groups that have a stake in the results: in 2015, The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had paid scientists to distract the public from the connection between sugary drinks and obesity. Last year, The Associated Press showed that candy makers also fund bogus research: one study showed that kids who eat candy weigh less than those who don’t.

Industry-funded research often shows results that are in line with the sponsors’ interests, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, who’s writing a book on the issue. That’s also true for pharmaceutical companies, she says, which are known for suppressing research that shows unfavorable results.

“This wasn't about science. This was about marketing.”

The study in question investigated the relationship between sugars and certain blood fats called triglycerides, which increase the risk of heart disease. The preliminary results from the research, called Project 259, suggested that rats on a high-sugar diet, instead of a starch diet, had higher levels of triglycerides. The rats that ate lots of sugar also had higher levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase in their urine, which at the time was thought to be potentially linked to bladder cancer, says study co-author Cristin Kearns, an assistant professor at the UCSF School of Dentistry.

The findings were described as “one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats,” according to the internal documents reviewed by the UCSF researchers. But after funding the research for 27 months, the International Sugar Research Foundation discontinued their support. So the study was never completed and the results were never published, according to the UCSF researchers. “Why would they want to fund research that would be against their interests? There’s no reason why they’d want to do that,” Nestle tells The Verge.

In a statement to The Verge, the Sugar Association — as the ISRF is known today — criticized the PLOS Biology paper, calling it not a study but a “perspective.” Project 259 was ended because it was “significantly delayed” and it was “consequently over budget,” the statement says. It adds: “Throughout its history, the Sugar Association has embraced scientific research and innovation in an attempt to learn as much as possible about sugar, diet, and health.”

It’s impossible to say whether Project 259’s early findings would have been confirmed. Today, we know that eating lots of added sugars — in sodas, sweets, and cereal for instance — increases your risk of dying of heart disease. However, there is “still no good evidence that sugar is a cause of bladder or other cancer in humans,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, who did not take part in the research, in an email to The Verge. “This rodent research is very indirectly related to human cancer, and it would not have appreciably influenced conclusions then or now.” 

Still, at the time, the preliminary results were interesting enough to warrant more research. But the sugar industry pulled the plug on the study because it didn’t like where the results were going, the UCSF researchers claim.

Nestle agrees: “This wasn't about science. This was about marketing,” she says. “If it were about science, they would have pursued it.”

Update November 22nd, 2017 09:18AM ET: The story has been updated to include a statement from the Sugar Association.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Striking out

Andrew WebsterTwo hours ago
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterTwo hours ago
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.

External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.

External Link
Jay PetersSep 23
Doing more with less (extravagant holiday parties).

Sundar Pichai addressed employees’ questions about Google’s spending changes at an all-hands this week, according to CNBC.

“Maybe you were planning on hiring six more people but maybe you are going to have to do with four and how are you going to make that happen?” Pichai sent a memo to workers in July about a hiring slowdown.

In the all-hands, Google’s head of finance also asked staff to try not to go “over the top” for holiday parties.

External Link
Insiders made the most money off of Helium’s “People’s Network.”

Remember Helium, which was touted by The New York Times in an article entitled “Maybe There’s a Use for Crypto After All?” Not only was the company misleading people about who used it — Salesforce and Lime weren’t using it, despite what Helium said on its site — Helium disproportionately enriched insiders, Forbes reports.