Big Sugar's tobacco-like past

3/11/2013

Hard to believe now, but Big Sugar once claimed sugar was “less fattening” than an apple.


Another ad suggests consumers eat ice cream before lunch to “curb your appetite” at mealtime.


These vintage ads are laughable now. But behind-the-scene documents from the 1960s and '70s suggest the sugar industry was engaged in a deliberate campaign to manipulate public opinion, according to an investigative report by CBC News.

CBC interviewed Cristin Couzens, a dentist who uncovered evidence that Big Sugar used tobacco industry tactics to quash health concerns about the sweet stuff.

After searching through innumerable library archives, she found the smoking gun in a cardboard box at Colorado State University.

“It was on the Sugar Association letterhead which is the trade association in Washington for cane and beet sugar producers,” she told CBC. “And the word ‘confidential’ was right under the letterhead. So the first document I saw was a confidential Sugar Association memo talking about their PR strategies in the 70s.

"So I had lists of their board reports, their financial statements, I had names of their scientific consultants, I had a list of research projects they funded, and I had these memos where they were describing how their PR men should handle conflict of interest questions from the press," she noted.

Back in the 1970s, people were beginning to understand that consuming too much sugar was unhealthy. So the industry, including the U.S. Sugar Association, worked hard to turn the tide of public opinion.

Couzens found documents that described efforts to silence news reports negative toward sugar, "block dietary guidelines to limit sugar consumption," and sponsor sugar-friendly scientific research.

Further to the last point, a report from the Sugar Association’s annual board of directors meeting in 1977 noted that in order to support “our desire to maintain research as a main prop of the industry’s defence,” $230,000 was being reserved to fund research.

Another document revealed that 17 scientists at universities including M.I.T., Harvard and Yale were pocketing sugar industry money. Some of that money was contributed by Coca-Cola, Hershey, General Foods, General Mills and Nabisco.

Couzens spoke to the sugar industry about the documents, and was told they were old and irrelevant today.

But an internal e-newsletter from August, 2003 included the following statement: “The Sugar Association is committed to the protection and promotion of sucrose consumption. Any disparagement of sugar will be met with forceful, strategic public comments and the supporting science.”

The Canadian Sugar institute did not directly comment on the Couzen’s findings.

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