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Open Conspiracies, Exhibit A: Whitewashing Sugar

Summary:
Apparently, a large number of Americans and other people around the world believe in what I consider to be implausible secret conspiracies. A key thing that makes a conspiracy implausible is the number of people who are supposedly in on the secret and faithfully keeping that secret. Once the numbers get large, someone usually breaks ranks. I wish those outside

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Open Conspiracies, Exhibit A: Whitewashing Sugar
Open Conspiracies, Exhibit A: Whitewashing Sugar
Open Conspiracies, Exhibit A: Whitewashing Sugar

Apparently, a large number of Americans and other people around the world believe in what I consider to be implausible secret conspiracies. A key thing that makes a conspiracy implausible is the number of people who are supposedly in on the secret and faithfully keeping that secret. Once the numbers get large, someone usually breaks ranks.

I wish those outside of law enforcement would pay less attention to the possibility of secret conspiracies and more attention to the certainty of open conspiracies: conspiracies that are not secret at all, that anyone can pierce who is motivated and properly equipped with the ability to read, digest and interpret technical material, or simply have the patience to wade through large amounts of text. Open conspiracies are still conspiracies because they aim to deceive those who are ill-equipped to interpret technical material or who don’t have time to wade through reams of documents—and who make a bad guess or bad judgment about who to trust to do that for them.

Prominent among open conspiracies is the lie that sugar is OK in the quantities that the typical American consumes. Anahad O’Connor has done a good job exposing this open conspiracy in a trio of New York Times articles:

  1. Sugar Industry Long Downplayed Potential Harms

  2. How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat

  3. Study Tied to Food Industry Tries to Discredit Sugar Guidelines

As teasers to encourage you to read these three article (which are all ungated), let me share some of my favorite passages, separated by bullets I have added (bullet = quotation from the article heading each section):

Sugar Industry Long Downplayed Potential Harms

  • The documents described in the new report are part of a cache of internal sugar industry communications that Cristin E. Kearns, an assistant professor at the U.C.S.F. School of Dentistry, discovered in recent years at library archives at several universities.

  • … the sugar industry launched a campaign in the 1960s to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar” in part by funding sugar research that could produce favorable results. The campaign was orchestrated by John Hickson, a top executive at the sugar association who later joined the tobacco industry. As part of the sugar industry campaign, Mr. Hickson secretly paid two influential Harvard scientists to publish a major review paper in 1967 that minimized the link between sugar and heart health and shifted blame to saturated fat.

  • Mr. Hickson was worried at the time about emerging studies indicating that calories from sugar were more detrimental to heart health than calories from starchy carbohydrates like grains, beans and potatoes. Mr. Hickson suspected this might be because microbes that reside in the gut, known collectively as the microbiota, metabolized sugar and starches differently.

  • 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.

  • The initial phase of the research appeared to confirm that sugar’s adverse effects on cholesterol and triglycerides were a result of it being metabolized and fermented by gut bacteria.

This research was then quashed. But animal research of a similar type was later used to quash cyclamates, a particular type of nonsugar sweetener (and thus competitor to sugar).

How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat

  • … a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

  • The revelations are important because the debate about the relative harms of sugar and saturated fat continues today, Dr. Glantz said. For many decades, health officials encouraged Americans to reduce their fat intake, which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.

  • Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said …

    Given the data that we have today, we have shown the refined carbohydrates and especially sugar-sweetened beverages are risk factors for cardiovascular disease …

  • As they worked on their review, the Harvard researchers shared and discussed early drafts with Mr. Hickson, who responded that he was pleased with what they were writing. The Harvard scientists had dismissed the data on sugar as weak and given far more credence to the data implicating saturated fat.

    “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind, and we look forward to its appearance in print,” Mr. Hickson wrote.

    After the review was published, the debate about sugar and heart disease died down, while low-fat diets gained the endorsement of many health authorities, Dr. Glantz said.

Study Tied to Food Industry Tries to Discredit Sugar Guidelines

Now, fast-forward to 2016:

  • A prominent medical journal on Monday published a scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar. Warnings to cut sugar, the study argued, are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.

  • The review was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, a scientific group that is based in Washington, D.C., and is funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods and Monsanto. One of the authors is a member of the scientific advisory board of Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest suppliers of high-fructose corn syrup.

  • Critics say the medical journal review is the latest in a series of efforts by the food industry to shape global nutrition advice by supporting prominent academics who question the role of junk food and sugary drinks in causing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other health problems.

  • The New York Times found that Coca-Cola had been funding scientists who played down the connection between sugary drinks and obesity. And The Associated Press reported in June that food companies paid for studies that claimed candy-eating children weigh less.

  • The paper, they say, is reminiscent of tactics once used by the tobacco industry, which for decades enlisted scientists to become “merchants of doubt” about the health hazards of smoking.

One possible weak defense of sugar could use “whataboutism”:

  • “It’s unfair to single out sugar and not [refined] starch,” he said. “I would like to see recommendations to limit both sugar and starch. But that’s half the calories in the food supply.”

Yes! Both sugar and refined starch should go. The fact that they are half of the calories in the food supply only makes the current situation more horrifying. No wonder obesity is going up, up, up!

Getting into the weeds a bit, it is easy for those who want to minimize the appearance of the harms of sugar to point to inadequate evidence. Then if they were sincere about the truth, they would be advocating more and better research. (It is difficult to say that the combination of existing evidence and the importance of the issue doesn’t justify spending a lot to find out the truth.) But often those pointing to inadequate research also (sometimes quietly) discourage further research.

The bottom line is that with big sugar working hard to deceive you, you’ll have to either think for yourself or find someone worthy of trust in order to get decent dietary advice. The US government’s dietary advice has been corrupted by the same well-funded interests.

The good thing is that with open conspiracies, there is hope to get at the truth. It just takes work to ferret it out. We live in a world with truth for the minds of the tireless and lies for the ears of the lazy.

For annotated links to other posts on diet and health, see:

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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