Study shows sugar industry buried evidence of health risks

You can’t get cigarettes at the pharmacy in San Francisco. But at the UCSF School of Pharmacy, tobacco research has long been part of the profession. When Dorie Apollonio, PhD, MPP, a faculty member in the School’s Department of Clinical Pharmacy, arrived at the School, she spent her early years probing a collection of tobacco-related documents and studies housed in UCSF’s Industry Documents Library.

“The School of Pharmacy always viewed tobacco and nicotine as drugs, so studying tobacco is part of its mission,” Apollonio says. This research netted her several influential papers, and also gave her an insider’s view of how the tobacco industry manipulated science to protect itself over the years.

As Apollonio’s research levels its sights on another titan—the sugar industry—she says the School is once again supportive.

Now, her focus has expanded to consider another cache of historical documents that describe the sugar industry’s involvement in early studies on the health effects of sugar. A paper co-authored by Apollonio appeared in PLOS Biology on November 21, 2017, detailing how the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), an industry research group, covered up rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia (a cause of heart disease) and to cancer, based on internal documents.

UCSF has put its stake in the ground on exposing industry manipulation of science.

–Dorie Apollonio, PhD, MPP

Like earlier research on the impact of the tobacco industry on tobacco science, the implications are stunning. “The Sugar Association proved to itself that calories from sugar had different metabolic effects than calories from starch in 1969,” lead author Cristin E. Kearns, DDS, MBA, told UCSF’s news center. “This is in stark contrast to its public position, then and now, that all calories are created equal.”

“Like the tobacco industry, the sugar industry has a long history of suppressing scientific results that do not support its economic interests,” says Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, senior author on the paper, a UCSF School of Medicine faculty member and director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.


Stanton A. Glantz, PhD


Dorie Apollonio, PhD, MPP


Cristin E. Kearns, DDS, MBA

Kearns has been personally compiling documents related to the sugar industry for years. Her previous discoveries include documents revealing that the sugar industry actively worked to pin the dietary causes of coronary heart disease on fat and cholesterol, while downplaying evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor.

With Kearns' cache of historical records and UCSF’s expertise in combing scientific research by industries, Apollonio thinks there will soon be more papers about how the sugar industry operates. She also sees echoes of the tobacco industry’s response in the Sugar Association’s official response to the paper, which blasted the study by claiming it was funded by “individuals and organizations that are known critics of the sugar industry.”

Journal citation: Kearns CE, Apollonio D, Glantz SA (2017), “Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documents,” PLoS Biol 15(11): e2003460.

“UCSF has put its stake in the ground on exposing industry manipulation of science,” Apollonio says. “The sugar industry knew the risks of sugar consumption a long time ago, and suppressed them.”

As with tobacco, the leap from pharmacy to sugar may not seem an obvious one, but to Apollonio it’s clear people treat sugar like it’s a drug, even if we don’t regulate it like one. “I hear people talk about sugar like they do about alcohol,” she says. “It’s late, I’ve had a hard day, I need some sugar.”

The consumption of tobacco has been reduced with policies like tobacco taxes, clean air laws, and higher purchase ages; but similar laws for sugar are uncommon. Apollonio says the research has affected her personally, including what she feeds her children. “If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you should just become a researcher,” she says.

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School of Pharmacy, Department of Clinical Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.