For decades, companies worked to cast doubt on whether sugar harms — until Cristin Kearns started digging up the dirt.
The cardboard box looked unassuming, but as soon as Cristin Kearns opened it, she knew she was onto something juicy. Inside were documents donated to Colorado State University’s library by a corporation that didn’t exist anymore, one whose local beet sugar factories had shut down by the 1980s.
Decades after those closures, in 2009, Kearns flipped open the top manila folder. The first sheet of paper was a 1975 tip sheet from a sugar trade group to sugar company executives, marked “CONFIDENTIAL.” It gave instructions on how to talk to the press about a pro-sugar series of scientific studies — research funded by the trade group, a fact that had not been disclosed at the time.
The memo was just one of many gems uncovered in the course of a sprawling investigation into the sugar industry. For decades, Kearns and a cadre of researchers have discovered, Big Sugar sought to influence journalists, scientists, and regulators with the effect of delaying research into its product’s potentially harmful health effects.
As a former dentist, Kearns had seen some of those harms firsthand. But to drill down to what seemed to be the root cause — how the sugar industry grew so powerful and ubiquitous in the first place — she hung up her dental coat to become a unique blend of investigative journalist, historian, and health researcher. She now crosses the country in search of libraries with formerly confidential archives from now-defunct sugar manufacturers, trade groups, scientists, consultants, and executives. By combing through thousands of pages of internal documents, Kearns and her team have gained unprecedented clarity into the machinations of the sugar industry during the mid-20th century.
They’ve found, for example, that a trade group knew as early as the 1950s that sugar caused tooth decay. But when the group went on to work closely with the federal government on a program about strategies to fight decay, it downplayed the most obvious, cutting out sugar. Another time, the group funded research that inadvertently linked sugar with bladder cancer, then killed the research. Then there was a 1967 paper — secretly funded by that same trade group — that blamed fat and cholesterol for causing heart disease, but minimized data showing sugar’s risks.
More revelations are in the pipeline. Kearns is an assistant professor at UC San Francisco, which houses millions of internal documents from the tobacco, drug, and chemical industries. As of last month, it has also amassed some 30,000 documents from the food industry, including Kearns’ hauls from the basements of Big Sugar.
“I think she’s a true original in her approach to research,” Marion Nestle, an emeritus professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Getting this information out is a major public service.”
Some critics of Kearns’ research have questioned how successful some of the sugar industry’s efforts to manipulate scientists actually were. But even they praise her for scrutinizing how food companies have tried to twist research and laws to their favor — a practice still very much in vogue.
Kearns’ revelations are feeding a broader backlash against sugar. Consumption of the sweet stuff, now present in all kinds of packaged foods and drinks, has tripled worldwide in the last 50 years. An emerging body of research links it to increasingly common maladies like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. And cities around the country, including Berkeley and Seattle, have started to tax sugary drinks.
The industry is fighting back, most recently by backing ballot measures and state laws that block future sugar taxes. In 2015, Coca-Cola funded a now-defunct network of scientists with the goal of blaming obesity on lack of exercise, not bad diet. Outside the US, manufacturers of sugary foods are funding nutrition research in developing countries where they are seeking to ramp up sales. Corporate funding doesn’t inherently corrupt, but on balance, studies bankrolled by the food industry do tend to favor the interests of their sponsors.
For its part, the Sugar Association, the industry’s US trade group, says that Kearns’ research is speculative and biased. “We acknowledge that Dr. Kearns has devoted significant time to the task of reviewing thousands of documents from over 50 years ago; however, we question her motives and certainly the accuracy of her conclusions,” President and CEO Courtney Gaine said in a statement. “The Sugar Association is proud of our long research history and believe that sugar is best enjoyed in moderation, a fact that is supported by decades of scientific research.”
But Kearns remains undeterred, and believes more secrets are waiting to be ferreted out. “We’ve just barely scratched the surface on what the industry has done to try and influence our profession.”