Document Dive: What’s Inside the Sugar Industry’s Filing Cabinets?

Internal papers reveal a strategy to safeguard sugar from “opportunists,” “pseudoscientists,” and “enemies.”

Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens relied on more than 1,500 pages of internal sugar industry documents for their exposé “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” The piece pulls back the veil on Big Sugar’s decades-long campaign to bury any scientific evidence suggesting that its product plays a role in what one industry honcho called the “death-dealing diseases.” Their story links directly to many of the primary documents, but we’ve highlighted a few here. Also read Couzens’ account of how she quit her job as a dental administrator to research sugar industry influence, and eventually hit the mother lode.

How it all began: This 1942 document encouraged sugar cane and sugar beet producers to create a joint research foundation to counter the “ignorance” the industry was facing. In addition to government “anti-sugar propaganda” sparked by wartime rationing, “diet faddists” were convincing weight-conscious women to forgo sweets. 


A “supreme scientific politician”: In the 1960s, hoping to stem the rise of diet soda, the sugar industry’s research arm spent more than $600,000 (a good chunk of change back then) to study every conceivable health impact of cyclamate sweeteners. As John Hickson, then vice president and research director of the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF) explained, “If anyone can undersell you nine cents out of 10, you’d better find some brickbat you can throw at him.” The FDA banned cyclamates in 1969, based on “shaky” evidence, according to a tobacco memo—and when Hickson moved on to the tobacco sector, his reputation preceded him.


Wakeup call: By the 1970s, there was enough evidence linking sugar to chronic diseases that controversy abounded. In 1975, diabetes specialist Errol Marliss, a consultant, argued that it was in the industry’s best interest to help settle the matter once and for all—he called on the ISRF’s membership to support meaningful research efforts to determine sugar’s safety. “A gesture rather than full support is unlikely to produce the sought-after answers,” Marliss had warned, according to this memo.



The gentleman from Coca-Cola has the floor: From 1975 to 1980, this document shows, the Sugar Association spent roughly $655,000 on 17 studies as part of a program designed “to maintain research as a main prop of the industry’s defense.” Each project was vetted by panel of scientific advisors, but required the approval of a second committee stacked with representatives of a dozen or so food and beverage giants, including Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, General Mills, and Nabisco. One of the projects sought to demonstrate that sugar might help relieve depression.


No conflicts here: In 1975, the Sugar Association’s Food & Nutrition Advisory Council, a panel led by Harvard University nutritionist and industry crony Frederick Stare, put together a collection of papers defending sugar; the Sugar Association distributed 25,000 reprints of “Sugar in the Diet of Man,” along with a press release declaring “Scientists dispel sugar fears.” Nowhere in the reports was their funding source acknowledged. If asked directly, according to the memo below, sugar PR people should admit that the industry financed it but say the whole thing was Stare’s idea.


No. Thank you: In 1976, a committee charged by the FDA with reviewing whether sugar was “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) would lean heavily on the abovementioned “Sugar in the Diet of Man.” As it happened, that committee was headed by George W. Irving Jr., who had previously chaired the International Sugar Research Foundation’s scientific advisory board. The committee’s report, which gave sugar a pass, credited the Sugar Association for “information and data,” as the former association president notes in this report to his board:


Damn the pseudoscientists: In this 1976 letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine, the Sugar Association’s former president JW Tatem berated the magazine for publishing an article by Harvard nutrition professor Jean Mayer, equating it with “the anti-sugar tirades regularly foisted on the unknowing public by pseudoscientists.”


Is that like “fair and balanced?” Today, the Sugar Association says that these historical documents “do not necessarily reflect the current mission or function” of the association. But a 2003 internal newsletter, in which the association assured its members that it was working to get “more balanced and unbiased” experts on the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Panel, hints at the industry’s current priorities.




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