How did we allow sugar to become as common as air in our food supply,
while ignoring the question: what’s it doing to our health?
The answer lies in a secret PR campaign dating back to the 1970’s. For forty years, Big Sugar deflected all threats to its multi-billion dollar empire, while sweetening the world’s food supply. Scientists were sounding the alarm, but few were listening.
Today, we find ourselves with rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease at an all-time high, and science is looking at sugar again. The sugar industry dodged the bullet once.
Can they do it again?
This is the story of how the world was seduced one spoonful at a time,
and who’s doing what about it.
Just before World War II, sugar consumption is at 4 pounds a month per person. It’s the first food to be rationed in 1942, and the government goes on a campaign to teach us we don't actually need sugar in our diet. As a wartime measure, consumption is cut in half to 2 pounds a month per person.
The American sugar industry gets nervous and puts together the Sugar Research Foundation. Its mission is to scientifically study the role of sugar in food and publicize its findings. The first research grant is awarded to Dr. Ancel Keys at the University of Minnesota: $36,000 to “study the metabolism in man of sugar.”
Courtesy of The New Republican
President Dwight Eisenhower has a heart attack that puts heart disease in the hot seat. It triggers a worldwide search for the scientific cause of the growing health threat.1955
In the U.S., Dr. Ancel Keys (the first academic to get a grant from the Sugar Research Foundation) publishes the now controversial Seven Countries Study, defending the hypothesis that dietary fat is the leading cause of heart disease.1958
In England, Dr. John Yudkin is the first nutritional scientist to defend the hypothesis that sugar may be the leading cause of heart disease. In his now prophetic book, Pure, White, and Deadly, he writes:
After all, it is not only scientists who eat, and if eating sugar really is dangerous, then everyone should be told about it… Only time will tell how right or wrong I am.
Worried about top scientists and the media making sugar the bad guy, the Sugar Association publishes ads in newspaper and magazines promoting sugar as a healthy nutrient. They appeal to a new demographic of women starting to diet, and pitch sugar as a way to keep that weight in check.1975
The sugar debate heats up. Dr. Keys publically attacks Dr. Yudkin, saying his claims are “propaganda” and his “generalizations are simply erroneous.”1975
With science mounting and sales declining, the Sugar Association hires a public relations firm, Carl Byoir & Associates, to help allay the public’s fears about sugar. The first major action they take in the campaign is to commission a white paper, Sugar in the Diet of Man, edited by Dr. Fredrick Stare.
We would like to voice our disappointment over the report on the health aspects of sucrose consumption issued by the Select Committee on GRAS substances… As we indicated in the material submitted to the public hearing held by the FDA, there is abundant evidence showing that dietary sucrose is one of the dietary factors responsible for obesity, diabetes and heart disease in this country… We strongly recommend that intake from all sources except fresh or processed fruit (without added sugar) be decreased by a minimum of 60%.
Letter to the Editor, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition1976
The warnings of sugar scientists are left ignored, and Big Sugar gets a pat on the back. Not long after the FDA ruling exonerates their star product, executives from the Sugar Association step up to a podium in Chicago and accept the Oscars of the PR world, the Silver Anvil Award. They are commended for excellence in “the forging of public opinion.”
The food industry can now put any amount of sugar in anything it likes.1976
In the year that sugar consumption hits an all-time high, the father of the case against sugar, Dr. John Yudkin, dies. His son, Michael Yudkin, reveals:
What worried him toward the end of his life was thinking about all the children who would be harmed if people didn’t pay heed to his research.
At the time of his death, soda companies are making enough sugary, fizzy drinks to fill every man, woman and child with 200 litres a year. He never lives long enough to know the impact his work would have.1995
Meanwhile, however, over in Switzerland, a young scientist studying what he thinks are the benefits of sugar finds the work of Dr. Sheldon Reiser. He makes a sharp left turn in his career that will soon pave the way for a big change.1995
By the turn of this century, rates of disease have skyrocketed. 171 million people have diabetes, and over 1/6th of the world’s population is overweight or obese.2000
Science journalist, Gary Taubes, kick starts a fresh debate with a controversial article and launches his career. What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? is published to great fanfare in the New York Times Magazine.2002
Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist just doing his job in California, blows the lid off the debate with a 90-minute biochemistry lecture that goes viral!2009
The United Nations declares that non-communicable diseases - diabetes, cancer, chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases - have overtaken infectious diseases as the world’s leading cause of death.2011
Dr. Lustig, now an international anti-sugar advocate, hits a nerve with his new book, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Foods, Obesity and Disease.2012
Cover Image: Courtesy of Mother Jones
Dentist turned detective, Cristin Kearns discovers secret documents that expose the PR campaign of the 1970’s and lays bare industry tactics. She reaches out to Gary Taubes, and together, they publish an exposé in Mother Jones magazine that sets her on a bold, new path. Her work catches the eye of Stan Glantz, the public health superstar who brought down tobacco with the Cigarette Papers in the 1990’s. Her life, and the sugar industry, will never be the same.2012
Here in Canada, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff - doctor and social media darling - goes after the Health Check program for its stamp of approval on sugary products. It gets just under 100,000 views and the attention of the good people at the Heart & Stroke Foundation.2013
Mexico enacts a controversial soda tax to combat the world’s highest obesity rate. Despite a media campaign launched by processed food companies to oppose the tax, the government persists and wins. Only a year later, soda purchases will have decreased by 12% compared to previous years.2014
An influential study in JAMA Internal Medicine links added sugar intake to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality - more than 40 years after Dr. John Yudkin and Dr. Sheldon Reiser made similar scientific claims. But this time, the world is listening.2014
Two brave souls row from San Francisco to Hawaii to raise money for Dr. Lustig’s Institute for Responsible Nutrition, working to end food-related illness.2014
The Heart & Stroke Foundation makes a bold move. It cancels the Health Check program after 15 years, and releases the first position statement in Canada proposing that government set a limit to sugar consumption.
Dr. Cristin Kearns publishes her first paper on sugar industry influence as revealed in her treasure trove of discovered documents. Making waves, she’s poised to transform the sugar industry, just as was done with tobacco. Her findings are reported internationally, including in The Washington Post.2015
After two less successful attempts, the World Health Organization releases official guidelines on sugar intake. They recommend that free sugars make up no more than 10% of our daily diet, with a further suggestion to limit them to 5%. Applauded by scientists and nutritionists worldwide, and criticized by industry, it’s the most progressive move to date. The public now waits for governments to enact legislation that will support these recommendations.2015
The science on the negative health effects of sugar are coming together, awareness of industry influence is increasing and change is afoot, but actions taken by companies like Coca-Cola show that the fight forges on - like the one taken up by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.2015