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The Bittersweet Truth: The Sugar Industry’s Manipulation of Nutrition Guidelines

Image via Zack Wittman / Bloomberg News

America’s favorite treat, sugar, is not as sweet as it seems. The sugar industry’s manipulation of a 1960s research review, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, changed the way Americans think about sugar and, most importantly, how they understand its impact on health and nutrition, inevitably contributing to the nation’s growing obesity epidemic. 

When evidence emerged linking consumption of added sugar and cardiovascular disease, members of the sugar industry were quick to obscure the truth. John Hickson, a lobbyist for the Sugar Association, paid Harvard scientists to write a review paper based upon specific studies selected by the sugar industry. This review indicated that saturated fat, not sugar, was the main contributor to heart disease. Interestingly, Hickson later joined the tobacco industry, where he had a “reputation for manipulating science to achieve his goals.” The sugar industry today draws from the tobacco industry’s playbook to hide the truth about the sweet ingredient.

Over the fifty years since this review was published, there has been a huge surge in products without saturated fat. Walking down the aisle of a grocery store, labels like “non-fat,” “low-fat,” and “zero fat” are common. However, the reduction of fat in soups, salad dressings, butters, and snacks of all sorts also removed much of the good taste. The solution? Added sugar. 

The sugar industry is one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States. It will remain so unless measures are taken to reform the industry and protect the American public from the sugar-induced obesity epidemic, one of the greatest public health crises of the century.

While the sugar industry corrupted a scientific study, it has also played a large role in manipulating nutrition and dietary guidelines through its lobbying and influence in Washington. Added sugar is present in almost every product on the market, ranging from soda to salad dressing to bread, and Americans are over-consuming this ingredient. According to the American Heart Association, the maximum amount of added sugars one should eat in a day is nine teaspoons for men and six teaspoons for women. 

To put that into perspective, the average bottle of Naked Juice, a product which is marketed as a “healthy” alternative to soda and other sugary-drinks, contains 46 grams of sugar, which is between nine and ten teaspoons. Meanwhile, a can of Coca Cola contains the same amount as the “healthy” alternative. One ‘healthy’ drink already exceeds the maximum amount of sugar for the day––and for many Americans, one drink is only a snack.  

The most recent government-recommended dietary guidelines, released in 2019, state that added sugars should comprise less than 10 percent of daily calories. However, the subsequent information emphasizes the benefits of added sugars: “Added sugars can help with preservation; contribute to functional attributes such as viscosity, texture, body, color, and browning capability, and/or help improve the palatability of some nutrient-dense foods.” The emphasis placed on the “benefits” of added sugars demonstrates the major role the sugar industry plays in official guidelines. They work hard to soften the negative perception of added sugar, even directly manipulating scientifically based nutritional guidelines.

These guidelines were released following a report issued by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that recommended a cut in the consumption of sugar to less than 6 percent of daily calories. Officials at the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services rejected this advice, refusing to place a limit on added sugar consumption. This type of action reveals an overall lack of scientific basis, or at least interference, in the United States’ dietary guidelines. 

Despite the American Heart Association (AHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) setting strict guidelines for recommended daily sugar consumption, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not added a DV% (Daily Value %) for total sugar on nutritional labels. The FDA argues that there have been “no recommendations made for the total amount to eat in one day.” 

The FDA’s decision comes following a letter from the head of the Sugar Association to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee about the health effects of added sugar. Andy Briscoe, the former president and CEO of the Sugar Association, called into question the “proof of cause and effect” in various studies that linked added sugar to health issues. Briscoe went further than just muddying the waters, he also directly refuted scientific evidence supported by organizations like the AHA and WHO, declaring that “there is not a preponderance of scientific evidence for conclusion statements that link ‘added sugars’ intake to serious disease or negative health outcomes or for a recommendation to limit ‘added sugars’ intake to less than 10 percent of energy.”

The goal of the sugar industry’s robust campaign is to diminish the negative perception of sugar in American minds and official guidelines. The sugar industry should not be permitted to manipulate regulation or use misrepresented evidence to challenge findings that discuss the negative effects of sugar. Such actions have resulted in a direct increase in American obesity and other health-related diseases as well as the corruption of important public health standards.

The sugar industry’s influence in the nutrition guidelines of the AHA and WHO also extends to Congress. In 2022, the Sugar Cane and Sugar Beets lobbies contributed over $7,304,681 to Congressional lawmakers. These funds were distributed to Democrats and Republicans in equal measures, with the recipients being determined more by seats on Agricultural Committees than political affiliations. 

Due to the sugar industry’s close ties to Congress, measures to reform the industry, like the Sugar Reform Act of 2015, have proven futile. In addition to corporate lobbying, the sugar industry also exerts its influence by funding research. The National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) began researching the effects of sugar on dental health as an effort to help reduce tooth decay. In an effort to reduce the potential harm of such a study, the sugar industry adopted “a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumption rather than restricting intake.” 

The sugar industry’s role in funding research enabled them to control what information became accessible to the public and modify any damaging findings. The sugar industry’s involvement in research studies is a major conflict of interest that has critical consequences. The NIDR lost an opportunity to learn more about the connection between sugar intake and tooth decay, a potentially consequential study. More significantly, Congress and other policymakers made nutrition decisions based on research studies funded by a lobby with vested interests.

Unfortunately, the sugar industry is not the first industry to attempt to reshape the narrative around their products. After studies uncovered the harmful nature of cigarettes, the tobacco industry employed almost identical strategies to those the sugar industry is currently using to avoid bad publicity. Eventually, they were exposed and public perception completely shifted, which is exactly what needs to happen to the sugar industry.

In 1955, American Tobacco was the largest tobacco company in the United States, and cigarettes were commonly endorsed by doctors and other medical professions, especially in advertisements. In 1964, the Surgeon General report came out, naming smoking as a cause of lung cancer. The tobacco industry was worth $5 billion in 1966, and, like the sugar industry, they poured millions into marketing campaigns to combat the damning report. 

Congress, however, was responsive to this growing issue and took steps to reduce cigarette consumption–cigarette commercials were banned on TV, radio programs, and on planes. By the mid 2000s cigarette consumption had declined over 32 percent. The final nail in the smoking lobby’s coffin was when in 2009, increases in taxes on cigarettes drove sales down by 10 percent. Even with the growing popularity of E-cigarettes, Congress has taken quick measures to regulate their sale, allowing the FDA to regulate these brands. In the summer of 2022, the FDA banned Juul, the largest E-cig company in the US.  

This campaign against cigarettes was effective and provides a roadmap for similar measures that must be taken against the sugar industry. Countries like the UK recently banned advertisements during television programs before 9 PM and online advertisements for foods that contain high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). The US should follow their example. Additional measures, like “soda taxes” have been proposed throughout the years and should be seriously considered and implemented. While there is strong public backlash to such measures, as sugar, like smoking, is addictive, it is essential that Congress put the health of the American people above their own political interests and begin to regulate the sugar industry and produce more scientifically-backed nutritional guidelines. It is time to curtail the influence of the sugar industry, just as was done with big tobacco. This nation has addressed a public health crisis before and must now do it again.