For decades dentists have told patients to avoid sugary foods if they want to help prevent cavities. But, is it possible that the risk of sugar-related cavity damage was actually worse than previously thought? Is it, in fact, possible that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were secretly receiving pressure from the sugar industry to downplay its destructive role on human health, including tooth decay?
A recent analysis of documents from more than forty years ago may suggest that is exactly what happened. Similar to the tobacco industry’s efforts to downplay the harmful effects of smoking and its correlation to cancer, the sugar industry may have tried to influence the NIH to suppress evidence that sugar had a negative effect on human health, including its contribution to tooth decay.
A postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) named Cristin Kearns discovered 319 letters, meeting minutes, and other documents dating from 1959 to 1971 in the papers of an organic chemist from the University of Illinois, Ubana-Champaign, named Roger Adams. Adams had consulted for the sugar industry and participated in research sugar manufacturers funded. These papers appear to indicate that sugar companies knew as far back as 1950 that consuming sugar contributed to tooth decay, but chose to adopt a strategy to deflect attention from this fact.
The researcher found startling parallels between the membership of sugar-industry expert panels and panels for the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) in 1971, where virtually all of the same people served on both panels. Research seems to have been heavily funded by the sugar industry at this time, including studies on a vaccine against tooth decay and a food-additive designed to break up dental plaque. What these studies did not include were research into the effects of sugar on tooth decay, preventing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from creating warnings against the consumption of certain foods that could be harmful to one’s health or the health of their teeth.
These strategies appear to be similar to those adopted by the tobacco industry in its efforts to downplay the harmful effects of smoking. In both instances, the affected industry leaders funneled research into curing the results rather than preventing the cause in an effort to keep research from pointing a finger directly at the culprit.
Not surprisingly, the authors of the report revealing these shocking findings were not able to obtain comments from the modern iterations of the organizations backed by the sugar industry. Nor were representatives of the NIH willing to comment on the report’s findings, either. For the moment, this report will serve as nothing but a warning about the corrupting influence of money on even the most important aspects of our lives. But, it also serves as a chilling warning that sugary foods and drinks may be even more dangerous for our teeth than we have ever previously realized.