Eroding Trust in Science: The Implications of Big Sugar’s Lies

Big Sugar lied and manipulated the public about the health impacts of its product. Another example of corporate interests eroding trust in science

A lie remains a lie long after it is told. The subterfuge of industry to serve it’s bottom line at the public’s expense is a crime that warrants public outrage.  We have recently seen evidence of this type of reprehensible behavior from big tobacco, big oil and automakers.

In 1994, we discovered that big tobacco was lying about the health impacts of smoking when Congressman Harry Waxman held a series of Congressional hearings that subpoenaed the CEOs of the four major tobacco companies. In 2015, big tobacco’s cover-up was eclipsed by the revelation that decades ago, Exxon concealed research showing how fossil fuels are a major cause of global warming. Further examination revealed that the whole fossil fuel industry was complicit in these lies. Also in 2015, Volkswagen found itself in hot water over a scandal in which they were found to have installed devices that falsified emissions tests.  Evidence of systemic dishonesty was then shown to extend across the auto-industry.  Now we can add big sugar to the list of industries responsible for strategic subterfuge.

Sustainability and sugar

Against the backdrop of big sugar’s obfuscation, sugarcane production has become increasingly sustainable in recent years. In addition to its use as a sweetener, sugar has greened its reputation through its use in renewable ethanol production. Voluntary and mandatory sustainability initiatives are changing the way sugar is farmed and processed. Green protocols are in place in Brazil and in many of the more than 100 countries around the world that cultivate sugarcane.

Responsible labor standards are expanding and producers are getting higher yields per acre as better land management principles are being incorporated.  New efficiency measures have reduced water consumption by up to 70 percent and in some mills, up to 95 percent of the water consumed is treated and re-used. There is also less use of pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. Diseases that threaten sugarcane are now managed through biological controls and nutrients are provided through innovative uses of organic fertilizers created during sugarcane processing.

Some environmentally harmful sugarcane agricultural practices are being eliminated altogether like the centuries-old practice of sugarcane field burning. This significantly reduces emissions and improves local air quality.  Helped by Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines, reporting and transparency is another growing trend in sugarcane production, as is sustainability certification incorporating environmental, social and economic criteria.

The big lie

However, these sustainability initiatives are at odds with the rotten truth at the core of big sugar.  The industry has been shown to have manipulated scientific data and attempted to cover-up the facts to give the impression that sugar is not harmful to human health.

As Candice Choi explained in an Associated Press article, documents reveal that in the early 1960s, the industry actively hid sugar’s role in heart disease. Their campaign of misinformation involved paid research and pressure exerted on media outlets.

These allegations are part of an analysis that originally broke in 2012 in a Mother Jones article titled, “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” The meat of the story involved confidential Sugar Association PR strategy memos unearthed by Cristin Couzens.

This story was only recently revived by the mainstream media due to a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Drawing on a decades-old series of correspondences between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard, the study unearths big sugar’s efforts to manipulate public attitudes.

Big Tobacco tactics

As reported by the CBC, Couzens found “documents suggesting that the sugar industry used Big Tobacco tactics to deflect growing concern over the health effects of sugar.”  These documents revealed industry lobby efforts to sponsor scientific research, silence media reports critical of sugar and block dietary guidelines to limit sugar consumption.

The documents show that in 1964, the Sugar Association actively sought to misdirect public attention away from studies that linked sugar with heart disease. In 1965, they came up with “Project 226”, in which they formulated a strategy involving researchers at Harvard, MIT, and Yale.

In 1967, an article written by Harvard researchers was published by the New England Journal of Medicine and it erroneously concluded there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease. This conclusion completely ignored existing research which suggested that sugar plays a role in heart disease. Money for this research came from some big corporate users of sugar including Coca-Cola, Hershey, General Foods, General Mills, and Nabisco.

At a Board of Director’s meeting in October 1976, the Sugar Association’s president denied the scientific evidence linking sugar and heart disease.  The same year, Sugar Association executives received a PR award known as the Silver Anvil for their subterfuge.

“It’s a little bit shocking to me that an industry would be rewarded for manipulating scientific evidence,” Couzens said. “At the time the award was given in 1976, there was a controversy. Many people thought sugar was harmful, the sugar industry wanted to turn public opinion toward thinking sugar was safe so they forged public opinion on how the public viewed the effects of sugar,” she said.

Undermining science

The implications of big sugar’s actions extend well beyond the food industry. Pseudo-research undermines the credibility of science and has been used to draw inaccurate conclusions that serve to manipulate public perceptions.  Similar tactics are used to discredit the science of climate change.  We see this to disastrous effect in the fossil fuel industry which funds pseudo-scientific research papers that are meant to undermine the credibility of real science.

Big sugar is but the latest industry to engage in scientific subterfuge. Recently, big oil and their Republican minions in California’s state legislature used these tactics in a failed attempt to turn Californians against new emissions reduction legislation. This makes it hard for the public to distinguish fact from fiction.

This is particularly harmful given that Republicans openly deride mainstream science including those who sit on important committees. Public policy positions, particularly those espoused by the GOP, appear to be completely disconnected from science.

Now more than ever we need to make policy decisions based on science. However, selectively released industry-funded research has made people skeptical about the veracity and authority of science. This allows corporate interests to bend the truth to serve their marketing agenda.

“Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science,” wrote New York University professor of nutrition Marion Nestle, a longtime critic of industry funding of science.


Big sugar is using the same tactics used by big tobacco,  big oil, the auto industry and climate deniers. This corporate subterfuge is harmful to public welfare. The JAMA researchers suggest that policymakers should consider giving less weight to industry-funded studies.

Although these offenses started decades ago, there is no statute of limitations for conviction in the court of public opinion. Consumers will hold accountable industries who are found to be responsible for corporate malfeasance.

When Couzens approached the sugar industry for comment, she was told the documents were ancient history. “They gave a comment like, that was in the past and does not reflect the mission of the sugar association currently.” However, contrary to Big Sugar’s assertions, not much has changed, their lies and cover-ups will continue to plague the industry.

The sugar industry still tries to nominate scientists who will serve their interests on the dietary guidelines advisory committee, and they are still publishing research through connections with the World Sugar Research Organization.

Disreputable corporations cannot outrun their lies forever and the public has a vested interest in holding them accountable.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Tamara, courtesy Flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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