It was the late 1960s, and the research was pretty clear, even then. Sugar consumption can promote tooth decay. So when the government launched a national effort to prevent cavities, they made a recommendation that Americans should cut back on the amount of sugar they ate, right? Nope. That's would have made sense, but it's not what happened. Instead, new research into decades-old documents shows that the government was heavily influenced by a sugar industry-controlled panel that suggested research in every avenue except the reduction of sugar consumption.
For the study, published in the journal PLoS Medicine, researchers reviewed 300 internal industry documents including old letters and meeting minutes dating back to the 1950s thru the '70s. Their research revealed that the sugar industry all but controlled and shaped government research on the role of sugar in promoting dental cavities. The documents show that industry researchers knew that sugar caused cavities but purposely pushed government policy to exclude this information when forming nationwide policies geared toward reducing cavities.
According to the study, the sugar industry deflected attention away from the role of sugar in causing cavities by funding research on enzymes that could be added to food to break up plaque and vaccines against tooth decay.
Researchers pored through an archive of more than 1,500 pages of industry documents, stored at the University of Illinois and discovered by a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco in 2010. The documents outline how the sugar industry proposed several recommendations for reducing cavities and how these recommendations were inserted almost word for word in a government plan for cavity prevention.
How did the sugar industry have so much say in a government report?
It probably helped that the subcommittee that was created to research the National Caries Program included many doctors and scientists who were also committee members of the International Sugar Research Foundation, an industry-funded group. In fact, out of 11 members on the government subcommittee, eight also served on the sugar industry's panel. It's no wonder then that the almost 80 percent of the recommendations put forth by the sugar-funded panel made their way into the government report on the best ways to prevent cavities. And missing were any recommendations for Americans to prevent cavities by actually reducing sugar consumption.
"The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake," said the study's co-author Cristin Kearns, the postdoctoral student who discovered the documents. "It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than 40 years ago."
It's more than a little scary to think about how easy it was for industry interests to take precedence over science in government policy. And while it's all well and good to think that this kind of thing only happened in the past, it does make you think a little bit harder about all of those government policies that recommend Americans eat or not eat certain foods, doesn't it?
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