Big Sugar Is Watching You: Four Ways the Food Industry Is Trying to Rig the Game

February 19, 2015 | 4:30 pm
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

Most of us ask a doctor for advice about our health. We consult a dentist about care for our teeth. No one queries General Mills, the maker of sugary Lucky Charms and Betty Crocker cake mixes, for the latest science on diabetes or cardiovascular disease. And no one in their right mind calls up Coca-Cola or PepsiCo for evidence-based guidance on sugar and dental disease.

While companies like General Mills and PepsiCo—responsible for the ubiquity of products with excessive added sugar in our grocery stores—may hide behind the veneer of socially responsible messaging, their trade associations are aggressively pushing contrarian views.

In comments to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), the independent scientific body tasked with making recommendations to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) as these agencies develop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the American Beverage Association (ABA), and  the Sugar Association have taken a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. These and other food industry trade groups are striving to influence agency rulemaking by casting doubt on the mounting scientific evidence linking added sugar to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and, yes, even tooth decay.

1) Attacks on the science

Members of the DGAC are distinguished scientists and have done their work with a very systematic, comprehensive and evidence-based approach. Their conclusions represent the scientific consensus. However, by creating the illusion of uncertainty, food industry comments to the DGAC attempt to discredit the committee’s scientific authority in order to undermine its recommendation to label and limit added sugar.

DGAC sugars wg pics

DGAC scientists in the Added Sugars Working Group.

The ABA, for example, asserts that the DGAC is acting improperly by “making recommendations that are more appropriately the responsibility of other authoritative bodies” and “providing recommendations on topics that clearly fall outside of their purview and that fail to reflect the relevant body of scientific evidence.” The GMA disputes the DGAC’s thoroughness, insinuating that the committee’s recommendations are not “based on the totality of available scientific evidence” because they do not align with member companies’ views.  A 14-page letter from the Sugar Association expresses “concerns” with the rigor of the DGAC’s research. In the letter, the trade group accuses the DGAC of following flawed methodology, claiming falsely that the findings in meta-analyses the committee relied on “contradict the positions and advice of U.S. professional organizations.”

2) Spreading misinformation

“Doublethink” is the term George Orwell coined in his novel 1984 for “tell[ing] deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them.”

DGAC more conclusion

The DGAC’s draft statement on added sugar, released during their November 2014 meeting, clearly acknowledges the support within the public health community, including the American Heart Association, for limiting added sugar.

In just one of many displays, the Sugar Association contends in its letter that the American Heart Association is one of the professional organizations disagreeing with the DGAC, citing an irrelevant paper on stroke prevention. To the contrary, the American Heart Association has expressly and publicly endorsed exactly what the DGAC is recommending—namely, limiting added sugar to 10 percent of daily calories. The letter says the same thing about the American Diabetes Association and the American Dental Association—and links to papers that similarly contradict the sugar group’s assertions.

In its own letter, the GMA, like the Sugar Association and the ABA, tries to downplay what every gum-smacking eight-year-old learns after visiting the dentist. In the letter, the trade group writes, “the frequency of sugar consumption, the stickiness of the food, and the length of time between sugar intake and tooth brushing plays a bigger role in the development of tooth decay than the quantity of sugar.” That statement is then referenced with a study that finds exactly the reverse: “The evidence that dietary sugars are the main cause of dental caries is extensive …. Without sugar, caries would be negligible.”

3) Deploying industry scientists and influencing academia

Another common tactic of sugar interests—when the only studies they can find unambiguously refute their own assertions—is to deploy their own scientists to dispute mainstream science and repeat industry talking points. In another letter to the DGAC, the GMA chides the committee for an incomplete review of the available science and proffers a list of scientists with whom the committee should consult.

DGAC slide on sugar and obesity

The DGAC found compelling evidence of a link between sugar consumption and obesity, but you’d never know it if you asked industry-funded scientists.

All five scientists named have food industry conflicts of interest on sugar [links to form page; enter scientist’s name in the form to see conflicts]. Theresa A. Nicklas received support from the Sugar Association; Joanne L. Slavin was funded by General Mills; and G. Harvey Anderson received support from General Mills, Archer Daniels Midland, and unrestricted funding from the Sugar Association and the Canadian Sugar Institute. In 2014, the other two, John Sievenpiper and Roger Clemens, appeared on an industry “sponsored satellite program” organized at a biology conference by James Rippe, an infamous figure paid $41,000 a month—among other conflicts of interest—by the Corn Refiners Association to produce and publish research that aligns with the trade group’s position on high fructose corn syrup and health.

4) Undermining policy

Ultimately, the goal of all this sophistry is to forestall policies aimed at protecting Americans’ health. And there’s nothing new in the tactics outlined here. As we’ve written, the Sugar Association went so far as to threaten the World Health Organization in 2003 when it released a report recommending  a 10 percent daily limit on calorie intake from sugar. Those familiar with WHO history described sugar industry pressure as “tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco lobby.”

Artist Kara Walker's "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. The foam structure was coated in 30 tons of sugar. As a work of "ephemeral art," it was dismantled after only two months, perhaps a comment on the dominance and potential demise of Big Sugar. Photo: Lauren via Flickr.

Artist Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. The foam structure was coated in 30 tons of sugar. As a work of “ephemeral art,” it was dismantled after only two months, perhaps a comment on the dominance and potential demise of Big Sugar. Photo: Lauren via Flickr.

Doublethink, in Orwell’s dystopia, is about denying objective reality at the same time those in power are taking advantage of it. There is no place for doublethink in our democracy. As the USDA and HHS prepare the new dietary guidelines, they should rely not on doublethink but on the best available science.

The DGAC’s recommendations on added sugar recognize the growing body of scientific evidence that over-consumption of sugar is a major contributing factor to the increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, along with the subsequent and significant health care costs of treating it.

By following the DGAC’s recommendation, the USDA and HHS could have a significant impact on turning the tide against the chronic diseases affecting American families and communities across the nation.