man drinking Coca Cola

Sticky Business: In the Interests of Sugar or Public Health?

man drinking Coca ColaNo doubt, you’ve heard about the recently released documents that reveal how the sugar industry bribed scientists in the 1960s to dismiss the link between sugar and heart disease.

This corruption buried concerns about sugar’s relationship with heart disease for 50 years, while saturated fat was claimed to be the singular villain of the heart. But this is hardly the only instance of researchers manipulated by the sugar biz.

Just last year, research revealed how the sugar industry hijacked caries (decay) research in the 1960s and 1970s. Using tactics akin to Big Tobacco, it had known since at least 1950 that sugar caused decay. They couldn’t deny it. There was scientific evidence.

So they adopted a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumptions rather than restricting intake.

It was found that between the 1960s and 1970s, more than three-quarters of the International Sugar Research Foundation’s (ISRF) industry-fueled research priorities were directly incorporated into the National Caries Program (NCP). This prompted the NCP to spearhead a program to prevent caries without ever recommending sugar reduction as a strategy.

This sugar blind spot may be why dentistry as a whole has largely failed to stop decay.

Today, the ISRF is known as the World Sugar Research Foundation (WSRF). It’s made up of more than 30 international members with economic interests in the sugar industry, including the US Sugar Association and Coca-Cola.

Certainly, this level of pandering and payola between the sugar industry, scientists, and public health officials has laid the foundation for fluoridation. Rather than reduce sugar consumption, the NHI and the American Dental associations would rather rely on fluoride. Similarly, there was research toward the possibility of a dental vaccine that would protect us from dental decay caused by sugar.

But nothing about confronting its fundamental cause.

But if you think, “That was then, this is now,” you’re not paying attention. Boston University’s Daniel Aaron and Dr. Michael Siegel are. When they noticed that big soda companies were sponsoring a few health organizations, they formatted a study to see how wide-spread the practice was. As Aaron recently told Dr. Bicuspid,

On the one hand, soda companies are sponsoring many health organizations and claiming to be beneficent, while on the other hand, they lobby aggressively against public health legislation. Health organizations must consider whether they ought to be improving soda companies’ image, taking on a conflict of interest, and, arguably, boosting soda consumption.

For the study, sponsorship was defined as any financial contribution to an organization or its activities. In addition, the study’s scope was limited to national organizations that work in the US.

To complete the study, researchers used search engines and scientific databases to identify public health organizations that accepted money from the Coca-Cola Company or PepsiCo between 2011 and 2015. To date, they have concluded that 96 organizations, including one dental group and five federal government organizations, accepted money from one or both of the soda companies.

Among the takers? The National Dental Association. The US Department of Health and Human Services. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. Save the Children.

Dr. Bicuspid adds,

It is important to note that the list of 96 organizations is far from complete. Coca-Cola was found to sponsor 99% of the 96 organizations, which may be because the company recently decided to disclose its sponsorship on its website. PepsiCo, however, has not done so, and therefore its sponsorship efforts are likely underreported. The authors also did not look at sponsorship from smaller soda companies or for regional organizations.

In addition, because the authors searched using general health terms, they may have missed some dental organizations. A search revealed the International College of Dentists also accepted $35,000 from Coca-Cola for “support for conference” in 2012.

However, dental organizations may also be less likely to accept money from soda companies because they have already been criticized for doing so. For example, in 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry was slammed by several news and ethics organizations for accepting a $1 million grant from Coca-Cola.

Do you believe public health organizations can promote health when they accept money from companies that sell products that contribute to disease?

Before waiting too long for the answer, consider who it is that will live out the consequences of this sticky business.

Image by Leo Hidalgo, via Flickr