Sugar industry suppressed health effects study 50 years ago – where do we go from here?

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WATCH: California researchers uncovered documents outlining a secret study that – if completed and published – would have changed how sugar is regulated and how we consume it today – Nov 26, 2017

A trip to the grocery store these days can be a daunting task. Knowing whether an item is actually healthy or whether it’s just a sugar-packed product packaged to have a health halo can be a challenge.

Health Canada says it is “concerned about the amount of sugar Canadians are consuming” and promises that changes are coming to nutrition labels soon to help us make healthier choices.

Even retailers have taken notice that Canadians are prioritizing less sugary diets.

According to Loblaw’s food trend forecast, “consumers will be seeking low-sugar foods, as well as ways to reduce their sugar intake” in 2018.

READ MORE: Are sugar limit guidelines based on robust science? This Canadian study says no

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These changes are especially timely in light of a new report published this week in the journal PLOS Biology, which implicates the sugar industry of pulling the plug on a study that they funded in the late 1960s, after initial results indicated links between excess sugar consumption with heart disease and cancer.

University of California San Francisco researchers uncovered the documents outlining “Project 259,” which they say was a secret study that – if completed and published – would have changed how sugar is regulated and how we consume it today.

Researcher and paper co-author Stanton Glantz told Global News that the 60s study was starting to make strong causal links between excess sugar consumption and triglycerides (fat found in the blood), which are associated with high cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease.

The research also found a possible link to an increased risk of bladder cancer and excess sugar consumption, due to increased levels of an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase, which scientists had already identified as a bladder carcinogen.

READ MORE: New report details sugar industry’s attempt to shape science

“Back in the 60s, there was something called the Delaney amendment to the Food and Drug Act which said that animal carcinogens had to be kept out of the food supply by the FDA,” said Glantz.

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“Had there been conclusive evidence that a high sugar diet was increasing the production of a bladder carcinogen, even in animals, that could have prompted FDA action.”

Glantz and lead author Cristin E. Kearns’ earlier research, published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, demonstrated how the sugar industry shifted the blame onto fat when it came to the health hazards.

LISTEN: The secrets of sugar are explained on Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge

In response to their latest paper, Washington-based The Sugar Association said Project 259 ended because “the study was significantly delayed; it was consequently over budget; and the delay overlapped with an organizational restructuring with the Sugar Research Foundation becoming a new entity, the International Sugar Research Foundation,” not because of any “potential research findings.”

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What is a ‘healthy’ amount of sugar?

The World Health Organization and the Heart & Stroke Foundation both say added sugars should be limited to 10 per cent of your daily caloric intake. On a 2,000 calorie diet that’s 48 grams or around 12 teaspoons. This doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit, vegetables or dairy.

Health Canada suggests a daily value of 100 grams of sugar from all sources – naturally occurring and added – is a part of a healthy diet.

READ MORE: The sweet lowdown: Is sugar the world’s most ubiquitous drug?

Experts say that on top of the known negative health effects of too much sugar, consuming too much makes your taste buds accustomed to sweets and takes up caloric value in your daily diet that could instead be filled with whole foods that offer health benefits.

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“Sugar isn’t too expensive. [Manufacturers] add it to improve the flavour for what people’s taste buds are and what they’re used to. So you’re getting sugar in a whole variety of different ways and once you get used to sugar, you tend to like sweets. It becomes a perpetual problem,” said Carol Drombow, a registered dietitian with the Heart & Stroke Foundation.

The good news is that Canadians will start seeing a change on the nutrition labels of processed foods over the next five years, which Health Canada hopes will help consumers make smarter choices. One big change will be that any ingredients that are a type of sugar will be lumped together as one.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow WHO’s guidelines

“Health Canada requires manufacturers to group sugars-based ingredients between parentheses after the name ‘sugars.’ […] This new measure will be a more transparent way of identifying sources of sugars added to the food, and how much they contribute to the total composition of the food compared to other ingredients,” said a spokesperson for the government agency.

But one change they won’t be seeing is a label indicating the added sugars in a product. Health Canada said they won’t be adding this line in the nutrition facts because “laboratory tests cannot distinguish between the naturally occurring and added sugars.”

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Toronto-based registered dietitian Rosie Schwartz bemoaned this lack of labelling requirement, saying it could have been a quick and easy way for consumers to choose products without added sugar.

How to change our sugary perspective

Schwartz says the North American diet is not only geared towards a sweeter palate but our culture doesn’t respect meal times, making for unhealthy eating habits compared to other parts of the world.

“We eat breakfast on the run – if we have time. There’s no tradition in terms of what makes up a breakfast,” she said. “For example, in China they might eat congee with fish or chicken or eggs. There’s some kind of protein. In Japan, breakfast also includes fish or eggs with starch as well.”

READ MORE: What nutrition experts want from Canada’s new food guide

She said that having ample protein and less sugar in the morning sets the right tone for the rest of your day.

“Here, we might start our day – not necessarily with something sweet – with a bagel with cream cheese. You’re not getting any protein and eating lots of carbs. You’re going to have a surge of insulin which will set you off for the day where your blood sugar with go up and down and you’ll be craving sweets.”

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Schwartz emphasizes the difference between liking sweets and craving sweets. Craving sugary snacks might indicate something else is going on with your insulin levels.

“Cravings are due to not eating the right balance, not eating at all or not eating on time,” she said.

To curb them, she says we need to start with a balanced breakfast and have more fuel throughout the day. But the right fuel means making the right choices.

READ MORE: Food labels that claim ‘no added sugar’ can be deceiving, Canadian study says

The experts say small swaps can add up to a big difference.

For example, Dombrow and Schwartz both suggest opting for plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit to it, instead of buying fruit-on-the-bottom varieties. Or try flavouring your own water instead of pouring yourself a glass of fruit juice or soda. And when you shop for cereal, avoid buying things at eye level, where the most sugar-packed varieties are stocked.