Dental Tribune America

Sugar industry may have biased US dental research program in the past

By Dental Tribune International
March 24, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO, USA: An analysis of historical documents has shown that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) in the 1960s and 1970s and may have influenced its research priorities at the time. In particular, findings indicate that the industry adopted a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harm of sugar consumption, rather than restricting intake.

In order to analyze industry actions related to setting or altering research priorities for the NIDR's 1971 National Caries Program, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, reviewed 319 internal cane and beet sugar industry documents from 1959 to 1971, which were uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois.

In the early 1950s, the sugar industry had officially acknowledged the role of sucrose in dental caries, given the scientific evidence. However, members strove to identify alternative approaches to reducing tooth decay rather than promoting the notion of sugar intake reduction, the researchers found.

The analysis showed that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sugar industry funded research in collaboration with allied food industries on enzymes to break up dental plaque and a vaccine against tooth decay, for instance. It also showed that it cultivated relationships with the NIDR and that a sugar industry expert panel overlapped by all but one member with the NIDR panel that influenced the priorities for the National Institutes of Health tooth decay program. The researchers found that the majority of the research priorities and initial projects largely failed to produce results on a large scale.

About 78 percent of a report submitted to the NIDR by the sugar industry was directly incorporated into the NIDR's first request for research proposals for the National Caries Program, and research that could have been harmful to sugar industry interests was omitted from the research priorities identified at the launch of the program.

The researchers concluded that the program was a missed opportunity to develop a scientific understanding of how to restrict sugar consumption to prevent tooth decay, mainly owing to the aligned research agendas between the NIDR and the sugar industry.

According to Dr. Stanton A. Glantz, a professor at the UCSF School of Medicine, these tactics are similar to corruptive actions taken by members of the tobacco industry in the same era. "Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting the public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits over public health," he said.

Furthermore, the authors of the study highlighted that the sugar industry's current position on public health is still focused on fluoride toothpaste, dental sealants and other ways to reduce the effects of sugar, rather than reducing its consumption.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dental caries is one of the most common chronic diseases. It affects 25 percent of children aged 6–11 and 59 percent of adolescents aged 12–19 in the U.S. alone. It is four times more common than asthma among U.S. adolescents aged 14–17. Dental caries also affects nine in ten adults over the age of 20.

Excess sugar consumption has been associated with heart disease, diabetes and liver disease, in addition to dental caries. At the beginning of March, the World Health Organization published new guidelines on sugar intake. The organization recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5 percent or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits, the WHO stated.

The study, titled "Sugar Industry Influence on the Scientific Agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research's 1971 National Caries Program: A Historical Analysis of Internal Documents," was published online on March 10 in the PLOS Medicine journal.

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