New study claims that sugar industry withheld research 50 years ago, adds that negative health impacts of sucrose could have been fought sooner had the findings been revealed.
Sugary snacks like cupcakes and laddoos may have spelt celebration for centuries, but the world now knows that consuming sugar is definitely not a cause for celebration. The risks of overdosing on fatty foods have been the focus of many studies, but the potential side-effects of sugar have mostly been ignored. Or have they been suppressed?
Until recently, there was no scientific explanation for the co-relation between sugar and health problems and diseases such as cancer and heart attacks. Sugar lobbyists dubbed any reports indicating sucrose products hazardous as “sensationalised” news.
However, a new study published in PLOS Biology journal confirms the fears. The report reveals that the sugar industry, over the past 50 years, suppressed findings on the harmful effects of table sugar.
Researchers at University of California, San Francisco, recently analysed historical documents regarding a rat study, which was launched in 1968 and was called Project 259. A sugar industry trade group, the International Sugar Research Foundation, or ISRF, funded the study that was conducted by W F R Pover at University of Birmingham.
The ISRF – then known as the Sugar Research Foundation – shut down the research when preliminary findings revealed that eating a lot of sugar could be associated with heart disease, and even bladder cancer. Without funding, the Project 259 study was terminated.
But last year the same group of UCSF researchers, following a review of internal industry documents, showed that ISRF also paid Harvard scientists in the 1960s, to shroud the relationship between sugar and heart disease, pushing them to blame saturated fats instead.
The new study is clear evidence of how the sugar industry manoeuvered public attention and discourse away from the negative health effects of consuming added sugars.
Sugar isn’t just bad for health; it has been proven to be unhealthy for the environment too. Its cultivation is extremely water intrinsic and processing releases greenhouse gases. Sugar has been a major force behind slavery, which plagued the world until the mid-nineteenth century.
We list the four brutal ways through which the sugar industry has harmed humans over the ages.
1. Study suggests that sugar can cause cancer
The study, published by Cristin E. Kearns, Dorie Apollonio, and Stanton A. Glantz on November 21, 2017, analysed the internal document and studies funded by the food and beverage industry. Their findings revealed that,
The sugar industry did not disclose evidence of harm from animal studies that would have (1) strengthened the case that the coronary heart disease risk of sucrose is greater than starch and (2) caused sucrose to be scrutinised as a potential carcinogen.
Two unpublished studies – both backed by Sugar Research Foundation – in the 1960s conducted research on the effects of feeding sugar to rats. In the first study, Project 259, rats were segregated into two groups, one of which was fed with a balanced diet of cereal, beans, fish and yeast, while the rest were given a diet with high sugar content. It was found that the group that consumed high sugar was more susceptible to stroke and other heart-related diseases, and had abnormal quantities of fat in the blood.
The second study was a comparison between sugar-fed and starch-fed rats. The researchers concluded that “sugar-eating rodents were more likely to have elevated levels of an enzyme associated with bladder cancer in humans”. The findings of both these studies were never published.
2. Sugar addiction is equivalent to drug addiction
Sugar isn’t just an empty calorie; it is an addiction responsible for causing approximately 184,000 adult deaths worldwide each year.
The term sugar rush refers to the higher energy levels supposedly experienced after consumption of food or drink with high sugar content. However, the danger of the white powdery substance goes beyond the fact that it is fattening and is responsible for widespread obesity globally.
Sugar gets an individual hooked as the high dopamine content triggers a feeling of euphoria, thereby inducing the pleasure chemical in our brain.
In Sugar: The Bitter Truth, Dr Robert Lustig calls fructose a “poison” and equates its metabolic effects with those of ethanol or drinking alcohol. Its metabolism, like that of alcohol, depends solely on the liver.
Just like any drug, sugar also follows the four major components of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving and cross-sensitisation, the notion that one addictive substance predisposes someone to becoming addicted to another.
This means that repeated access to sugar over time leads to prolonged dopamine signalling, greater excitation of the brain's reward pathways and a need for even more sugar to activate all the midbrain dopamine receptors like before. The brain becomes tolerant to sugar - and more is needed to attain the same ‘sugar high,’ says Jordan Gaines Lewis, a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State College of Medicine.
3. Sugar and sugarcane crop is killing farmers in Maharashtra
Sugarcane farming is one of the leading causes for farmer suicides in Maharashtra and other parts of India.
Considering the rise in suicide among farmers, Madhav Chitale, former chairman of Central Water Commission, in 1999 suggested that sugarcane cultivation should be banned in Marathwada. The reality is that approximately 2,000 to 2,500 litres of water is consumed to produce just one kg of sugar. This becomes problematic in drought-prone regions in Maharashtra, India’s top state for sugarcane and sugar production.
The root problem in sugarcane cultivation lies in the fact that only 18 percent of cultivable land, 22.5 million ha, is irrigated and arable. But the problems related to sugarcane production have been refuted by sugar industry leaders.
Earlier this year, the Maharashtra Government passed a resolution to ban sugar factories in Marathwada for the next five years. The last sugar mill closed down in May, 2017, due to non-availability of sugarcane.
4. Sugarcane was a major cause of slavery
The history of sugar is laced with bitter experiences of slavery, prominent in Haiti, South America, Caribbean and parts of Southern United States.
Terming it “White Gold”, European superpowers, starting from 16th century, brought millions of Africans to America to work in sugarcane plantations.
Spanish colonisers viewed sugarcane as an income generator and planted sugarcane across Caribbean colonies. By mid-16th century, this sweet crop became a favourite among Portuguese, British, Dutch and French colonies.
Slave trade became rampant as manpower was required to plant, harvest and process the crops. For three centuries, slaves from western Africa toiled, irrespective of scorching heat, rains or shivering winters.
“Sugar slavery was the key component in what historians call The Trade Triangle, a network whereby slaves were sent to work on New World plantations, the product of their labour was sent to a European capital to be sold and other goods were brought to Africa to purchase more slaves,” says Heather Whipps, from LiveScience.
By 19th century, 10 million-plus Africans were displaced and distributed among sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean.
The sugar industry has treaded the same path as pharmaceutical companies, which are known for suppressing research that shows unfavourable results. But at what cost? Researchers believe that the negative health impacts of sucrose could have been dealt with sooner had the findings been released. Can the damage be reversed?