Wed | Sep 23, 2020

Glenn Tucker | Sugar, science and junk science

Published:Wednesday | October 10, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Professor Errol York St. Aubyn Morrison is one of Jamaica's most accomplished sons. His credentials include at least two doctorates, two professorships and two master's degrees.
He has carried out pioneering work in the medical field with special emphasis on diabetes. He has written over 200 scientific publications - all reviewed and respected by his peers. There are also 20 books and technical reports.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when this oustanding scholar speaks, the sensible thing to do is listen.
A few days ago, Professor Morrison stunned the country - in the midst of a sugar awareness campaign - stating that sweet drinks (bag juice, etc.) were helpful and should not be discouraged. He went on to explain. But I suspect that there may be some confusion. I hear the local sweet drinks industry is ecstatic.
When the man on the street hears about sugar, he thinks about sugar cane. Sugar cane juice and its products have been in use for thousands of years and have been found to be good for health. It is said to help treat jaundice, cure flu and sore throat, improve the immune system, moisturize the body , prevent prostate and breast cancer. Since sugar cane has no simple sugars, it is safe for diabetics but persons with type-2 diabetes are advised to limit their intake. It is also alkaline, and diseases find it extremely difficult to thrive in an alkaline environment.
But the overwhelming majority of the liquids we consume are not sweetened by sugar cane. Manufacturers have found it substantially cheaper to use artificial sweeteners to sweeten these drinks. And therein lies the problem.
Whenever there is doubt, we usually ask for scientific proof to substantiate claims. Unfortunately, scientists can be corrupted. And it is to scientists that various industries have turned when they need help to obfuscate facts that are likely to reduce sales.
Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, was accidentally discovered by postdoctoral student Constantine Fahlberg at Johns Hopkins University in 1879 while he was working on coal tar derivatives. He forgot to wash his hands for lunch and was surprised to find everything he touched was sweet.
This was a bonanza for the sweet drinks industry, as saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar. A 1970 study, however, showed that saccharin caused bladder cancer in rats. The substance was banned in 1977. Immediately, food manufacturers and lobbyists fought back, fearful of the increased production costs. The ban was soon changed to a warning. And that disappeared in the 21st century when saccharin was taken off the list of known carcinogens by the US government. Why?
Decades ago, scientists warned of an impending global pandemic of obesity. This was ignored as diets in the 1970s shifted toward increased reliance on processed foods with edible oils and increased use of sugar sweetened beverages. There was also a corresponding increase in reduced physical activity. It was in the 1990s that everyone started to notice a wide array of nutrition-related cardiometabolic problems including hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
The first clear signals of the coronary heart disease (CHD) risk of sugar (sucrose) came in the 1950s. The president of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) gave a speech describing a great business opportunity; "If Americans could be persuaded to eat a lower fat diet - for the sake of their health - they would need to replace that fat with something else. America's sugar consumption could go up by a third" he said to rousing applause.
A group of scientific researchers examined the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) internal documents and historical reports and assembled findings chronologically into a narrative case study. The SRF sponsored its first CHD research project in 1965. Researchers from the prestigious Harvard University, no less, were paid today's equivalent of US$48,900 for an article that concluded there was 'no doubt' that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease. This was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967 with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.
Aspartame, another sweetner, has been found to be safe for human consumption for the regulatory agencies of more than ninety countries. FDA officials swear by it. But credible claims have been made that aspartame is related to health defects ranging from mild problems such as headaches, dizziness, digestive symptoms to mood changes, Alzheimer's disease, birth defects, Parkinson's and ADHD.
Canada and the UK are just a few of the developing countries that support the World Health Organization's position that no more than five per cent of daily calories should come from sugar. Professor Ian MacDonald, chair of the England working group, says, "The evidence is stark. Too much sugar is harmful to health and we need to cut back. His group thinks that a gradual reduction of 40 per cent over five years in the sugar content of beverages without replacement with artificial sweeteners could reduce overweight adults in the UK by 0.5 million, obese adults by one million and cut cases of type 2 diabetes by 300,000.
Manipulative food company sponsorships have contributed more than anything to shaping our dietary choices, death and suffering in modern history, It has undermined public trust in nutrition science.
A gloss to this sad tale was when The Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.
I would like to commend Minister Tufton and his staff for their forward thinking which is consistent with modern positions in this matter. I have relied heavily on the research findings of an excellent team - Gantz, Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt of JAMA Internal Medicine for this article.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to and