Sugar Industry Strove to Counter Dentistry’s Warnings

Dentistry Today


Dentists have long warned their patients about the role of sugar in causing tooth decay. In the 1970s, however, the sugar industry in the United States went to great lengths to counter these arguments and present their product as a healthy part of a well-balanced diet, according to Ifunaya Okeke, a student at the University of California San Francisco School of Dentistry

“In the 1960s, there was a lot of research surfacing linking sugar to a lot of different health diseases like obesity, diabetes, and even tooth decay. So, imagine you’re a corporate executive and your sales are declining. There’s a lot of press coming out about your product. And, you’re worried that the government is going to start implementing regulations. What are you going to do?” Okeke said. 

“I’ll tell you what the US Sugar Association did. They started pouring a lot of money into different researches that weren’t answering any questions, that were only creating doubt, and just creating more confusion within the community,” Okeke said.

Okeke reviewed internal documents from the US Sugar Association from 1974 to 1978 related to its operations, regulatory activities, and scientific research for their relevance to the Regional Nutritional Information Program, which the organization founded in 1975 with the goal of enlisting dietitians to spread positive messages about sugar and health.

For example, Okeke found the results of a poll that the US Sugar Association conducted in 1974 exploring public attitudes toward sugar. The poll found that among opinion leaders, dentists had the most blatantly negative attitudes toward sugar and that almost half of all consumers cited dentists as their source of information about sugar and health. The ADA in particular was found to be aggressively anti-sugar and a major influence among consumers. 

In 1975, the US Sugar Association published Sugar in the Diet of Man, which comprised six papers written by nine prominent American scientists about sugar and health. One of its main sections included “Sugar and Dental Decay,” which advised dentists to be “realistic” and set “attainable” goals for complex eating habits. It also advised a reduction in “sticky sugar” consumption while approving consumption of other sugars and increasing fluoridation.    

Based on this review of the US Sugar Association’s documents, Okeke concluded that the Regional Nutritional Information Program was an essential component of the organization’s public relations campaign and that it was designed to portray the safety and benefits of sugar in a balanced diet. 

Target audiences included universities, public schools, professional associations, and the media. US Sugar Association dietitians hosted educational workshops, incorporated US Sugar Association information into libraries and curricula, monitored professional and consumer attitudes toward sugar, and appeared in the media.

The US Sugar Association believed its media appearances were a “very quick, effective way to reply to criticism of sugar,”  according to a 1978 document. For example, a story critical of sugar on 60 Minutes led many viewers to see sugar as addictive at first. But this opinion diminished six months later with a concurrent article on “Too Much Sugar” in Consumer Reports

These dietitians also interacted with dental professionals by documenting their attitudes toward sugar, influencing a professional conference to include pro-sugar speakers, developing a media program that minimized sugar’s role in tooth decay, and monitoring and criticizing dentist-researchers examining the high sugar content of breakfast cereals.

Okeke concluded that the US Sugar Association used the Regional Nutritional Information Program to counter dentists’ anti-sugar messages at professional meetings and in the media with positive messages about sugar and suggested that the public health community should consider corporate relationships in the dietetic profession as potentially detrimental to oral health. Also, she said, similar efforts are continuing.

“There are several initiatives taking place in our country right now to reduce sugar consumption, such as a sugary beverage tax. The Sugar Association has been one of those industries that is trying to stop these initiatives from taking place,” Okeke said.

“Sugar is a major component of what we’re trying to treat every single day. And it’s up to us as the oral health community to be more active in implementing new policies like the sugar beverage tax and be more active when it comes to scrutinizing the sugar association,” said Okeke.

Okeke presented the study, “Sugar Industry’s Use of Dietitians to Influence Dental Professionals, 1974-1978,” at the IADR/AADR/CADR General Session & Exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 19.

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