A recently discovered archive of 319 industry documents from the 1960s and 1970s at the University of Illinois show how the sugar industry knew as early as 1950 that sugar caused tooth decay. Further, the National Institutes of Health concluded in 1969 that focusing on reducing sugar intake was not a practical public health measure.
The sugar industry trade organization and the National Institutes of Health then began working together to find other approaches, instead of reducing sugar, to prevent tooth decay. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay is the leading chronic disease among children today even though it is largely preventable. “The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake,” said first author Cristin Kearns, DDS, MBA, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar who discovered the archives. “It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than forty years ago.”
Kearns found the papers, which were left to the University of Illinois in a collection by the late Roger Adams, an organic chemistry professor who served on the Sugar Research Foundation and the scientific advisory board of the International Sugar Research Foundation. The collection has more than 1,500 papers, including correspondence between sugar industry executives and meeting minutes. Kearns and co-authors analyzed the collection against National Institute of Dental Research documents to see if the “sugar industry may have influenced the research policies of the 1971 National Caries (Tooth Decay) Program.”
Based on their analysis, the sugar industry worked with other allied food industries in the 1960s and 1970s and funded research for things like a vaccine against tooth decay. The analysis further found the sugar industry made strong relationships with the National Institute of Dental Research and sugar industry experts were placed on National Institute of Dental Research panels charged with National Institutes of Health tooth decay programs. That program was not successful in reducing tooth decay on a large scale. Co-author Stanton A. Glantz said, “These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in 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 added.