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Researchers say sugar industry pulled funding from 1960s study that suggested harmful effects of sucrose

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A new study based on 50-year-old documents has placed the spotlight on the sugar industry by suggesting in the 1960s it suppressed scientific findings linking high sugar consumption with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and even cancer. 

The study, Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documents, is built upon internal industry documents unearthed by a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who published a report on their findings in PLOS Biology on Nov. 21.

The study asserts that in 1968, the Sugar Research Foundation, a sugar industry trade group that evolved into today’s Sugar Association, provided funding for an animal research project called Project 259, aimed at examining the effects of sucrose on cardiovascular health. But when early evidence indicated that high sugar consumption might be related to heart disease and bladder cancer, the foundation abruptly pulled the plug on funding for the research, without ever revealing the results or suggesting any evidence of harm, the report stated. 

“The sugar industry did not disclose evidence of harm from animal studies that would have (1) strengthened the case that the CHD risk of sucrose is greater than starch and (2) caused sucrose to be scrutinized as a potential carcinogen,” the UCSF authors stated in their report.

The report suggests that based on the study’s initial findings, “extending Project 259’s funding would have been unfavorable to the sugar industry’s commercial interests.”

Scientists in the 1960s disagreed about whether sucrose was hypertriglyceridemic relative to starch, and Project 259’s preliminary results could have supported the argument that sucrose was hypertriglyceridemic, the UCSF authors stated in their study.

Additionally, a study linking sucrose consumption to bladder cancer could have had a devastating impact on the sugar industry, because in 1958 a finding that a specific food caused cancer in animals would have been sufficient to remove that food from the FDA’s list of foods generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

“Had ISRF disclosed Project 259’s findings, it is likely that sucrose would have received scrutiny as a potential carcinogen,” the researchers said. “This possibility seems particularly likely because in October 1969, the FDA removed cyclamates – artificial sweeteners that had captured significant market share from sucrose – from the GRAS list based on evidence that rats fed high levels of cyclamates developed bladder tumors.”

The Sugar Association, however, has blasted the study, discounting it as a “collection of speculations and assumptions about events that happened nearly five decades ago, conducted by a group of researchers and funded by individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation that has provided financial backing in support of soda taxes, funded the research.

In a Nov. 27 email to IEG Policy, Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, said that cancer is a “serious matter” and that to make assumptions about a link between sugar and cancer based on Project 259’s preliminary data would be “misleading and irresponsible.”

“No sound evidence can be drawn from this research, or other research, that sugar (sucrose) is a cause of bladder or other cancer in humans,” Gaine wrote.

“It is important to point out that what PLOS Biology published is not a study, it’s a perspective by a group of researchers who are known sugar industry critics,” she added. “We were never asked by the researchers to verify the documents they used. This is the third published paper by this group of critics and we’ve never had access to confirm the validity of their documents or weigh in on the speculations they make from these documents.”

Even if the research would have been published, Gaines questioned if it would have made a substantial difference on scientific positions of dietary sugar.

“No sound evidence can be drawn from this research, or other research, that sugar (sucrose) is a cause of bladder or other cancer in humans.” 

“This is just a single study that has been followed by tens of thousands of studies over the 50 years since it took place. It takes years and years of peer-reviewed scientific research studies to validate findings and further explore comprehensive conclusions,” Gaines noted.

The UCSF researchers, however, view their findings as part of mounting evidence that the sugar industry has for decades worked to advance its economic interests by suppressing negative research, in a tactic similar to the ones employed by Big Tobacco businesses.

The sugar industry has consistently maintained a position that sucrose has no other metabolic effects related to chronic disease beyond its caloric effects, they noted in the study. As recently as Jan. 5, 2016, the industry issued a statement discounting the findings of a study published in Cancer Research, which suggested that dietary sugar induces increased tumor growth and metastasis, when compared to a non-sugar starch diet, the authors noted in their report.

However, the findings of the new study paint a different picture, said lead study author Cristin Kearns, who discovered the documents used for the new study.

“The Sugar Association proved to itself that calories from sugar had different metabolic effects than calories from starch in 1969,” Kearns said. “This is in stark contrast to its public position, then and now, that all calories are created equal.”

The latest study is based on internal documents, industry memos and meeting agendas, that Kearns, an assistant professor at UCSF, discovered in university library archives. For the new study, Kearns worked with Stanton Glantz, a UCSF professor of medicine and director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, as well as Dorie Apollonio, another associate professor at UCSF.

Kearns and Glantz have worked on similar research before and in 2015 published a study suggesting that the sugar industry played a role in shaping the scientific agenda for the National Institute of Dental Research's (NIDR) National Caries Program in 1971. The study was also based on old industry papers and suggested the sugar industry cultivated relationships with NIDR leadership and adopted a strategy to redirect the focus from restricting sugar as a way to control caries and instead promote public health interventions that didn’t involve sugar consumption.

Last year, Kearns, Glantz and other UCSF researchers found papers suggesting that the sugar industry began working closely with nutrition scientists in the mid-1960s to shift attention toward fat and cholesterol as the main culprits for CHD, thus downplaying the role of sugar consumption as another risk factor. The effort was coordinated by John Hickson, a top executive at the Sugar Association who later joined the tobacco industry.

The researchers reported that the Sugar Research Foundation secretly funded a 1967 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which discounted evidence linking sucrose consumption to blood lipid levels and coronary heart disease.

In their latest study, the UCSF researchers used similar methods and found that in the mid-1960s Hickson was concerned about then new studies suggesting that calories from sugar had a worse effect on health than calories from starch. Hickson suspected that the difference may be caused by microbes in the stomach, or microbiota, so in 1968 the sugar organization recruited W.F.R. Pover, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom to conduct a lab study on rats.

The trade group, which later became the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF), paid Pover what today would be equivalent to $187,000 to conduct a study between 1968 and 1970.  

In 1969, an ISRF report indicated that the rats fed with sucrose, were producing high levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, which at the time had been connected to hardened arteries and bladder cancer. The rats fed sucrose, the main component of cane sugar, had produced high levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, which three other studies published around that time had associated with hardened arteries and bladder cancer.

“This is one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats,” the ISRF report on Pover’s study progress stated.

In August 1970, Pover also submitted an early progress report to ISRF, suggesting that the rats on the sucrose diet also experienced an increase of triglycerides, a type of fat that contributes to cholesterol.

Pover, however, needed additional time to conclude the experiment. ISRF had previously authorized an extension for the project and the “language in Pover’s report suggests he was confident that Project 259, taken to completion, would confirm the causal role of gut microbiota in the differential effects of sucrose and starch on serum triglycerides in rats,” the UCSF researchers wrote in their report.

But after receiving these results, ISRF decided not to extend the funding for the 12 additional weeks that researchers needed to complete the project. The UCSF researchers could not find any published results of Pover’s study but they did dig out an assessment of industry research, in which Hickson described the value of Project 259 as “nil.”

UCSF researchers could not determine why Pover’s research was never published and pointed to a variety of possible reasons, including the possibility that ISRF leaders knew that Pover had no other funding options and would not be able to complete and publish the study without its support.

“Despite limited available detail about Project 259’s study design, it appears that ISRF did not terminate funding because of concerns about the quality of the study,” UCSF state in their report. 

According to a statement from the Sugar Association released on Nov. 21, funding for the study was canceled for more practical reasons, unrelated to the study’s initial findings. The study was significantly delayed and it ran over budget. That also coincided with an organizational restructuring within the Sugar Research Foundation, which was in the process of becoming a new entity, the International Sugar Research Foundation, the trade group said. 

“There were plans to continue the study with funding from the British Nutrition Foundation, but, for reasons unbeknown to us, this did not occur,” the group said in a statement.

“Throughout its history, the Sugar Association has embraced scientific research and innovation in an attempt to learn as much as possible about sugar, diet and health,” the group added. “We know that sugar consumed in moderation is part of a balanced lifestyle, … and we remain committed to supporting research to further understand the role sugar plays in consumers’ evolving eating habits.”

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