When she was working as a dentist in Colorado, Cristin Kearns remembers being gob-smacked by the mouths full of cavities and cases of oral disease she was seeing, especially while the director of a low-cost dental clinic.
She was even more astonished when she went to a conference on gum disease and diabetes in 2007. One of the keynote speakers handed out a national guide that included sweetened iced tea as an approved drink. Kearns asked him how he could possibly give the stuff a green light when the poplike beverage is loaded with sugar. He told her there was no evidence linking sugar to chronic disease.
That interaction prompted Kearns to look into the political and industry influence on the health advice being doled out at the conference. She plunged into research, eventually uncovering a gold mine of damning evidence at her local library, of all places. A now defunct company called Great Western Sugar had donated boxes of documents, including confidential ones covered in dust from the 1970s issued by what was then called the Sugar Association.
“There was just page after page of this big public-relations strategy that the Sugar Association implemented in the 1970s,” Kearns says in Sugar Coated, a new documentary by Toronto’s Michèle Hozer. “It was a very important time when the [U.S.] Food and Drug [Administration] was actually reviewing all the scientific evidence on the health effects of sugar, so everything they did during that time…was designed around getting that safety approval from the FDA.
“The industry felt strongly it needed a very comprehensive public-relations strategy to make sure there’s never a consensus on just how bad sugar is,” Kearns says. Executives from the Sugar Association went on to win a Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America for its successful marketing campaign.
Not much has changed since the ’70s, except that today people around the globe consume more sugar than ever before. Type 2 diabetes—which is also known as “adult onset” diabetes—is showing up in children; so is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. More than 600 million people globally are overweight or obese. Seventy-four percent of packaged foods contain sugar, according to Sugar Coated.
It’s the fact that the sugar industry is using tobacco-style tactics to promote its product and downplay the substance’s harmful effects that really riles Hozer.
“When I looked at old footage from [the 1986 film] Sugar Trap, I was shocked,” Hozer says in a phone interview. “It could have been made today. It’s the exact same information. This debate occurred 30 years ago; they even wanted to put tobacco-style warning labels on sugary goods, and then all of a sudden the debate stopped. What happened? There’s really something bigger going on here than people just asking if sugar is toxic.
“Who would have known there was a big sugar lobby using tobaccostyle tactics to get us to not ask the question ‘Hey, is sugar bad for us?’ even though our grandmothers knew it was,” she adds. “History is repeating itself.”
Hozer’s captivating documentary includes commentary from Stanton Glantz, a tobacco-control researcher and activist; pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease; and science writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. Hozer also talks to John Sievenpiper, a University of Toronto researcher who says in the film that he doesn’t agree that sugar is toxic. According to Sugar Coated, Sievenpiper also receives grants for sugar research from the food industry.
“I’m not comparing substances, saying sugar is as bad as tobacco,” Hozer says, “but I’m looking at the tactics. We need to be bringing in doubt, pushing the debate forward…. They’re [the food industry is] there to make money; they’re there to make profit. We need the government to help create regulation and limits in order to level the playing field.”
Sugar Coated plays at the Vancity Theatre at 12:30 p.m. on Monday (May 4) and 6 p.m. on Tuesday (May 5) as part of the DOXA fest.