A newly discovered cache of industry documents reveals that the sugar industry worked closely with the National Institutes of Health in the 1960s and '70s to develop a federal research program focused on approaches other than sugar reduction to prevent tooth decay in American children.
The archive of 319 industry documents, which were uncovered in a public collection at the University of Illinois, revealed that a sugar industry trade organization representing 30 international members had accepted the fact that sugar caused tooth decay as early as 1950, and adopted a strategy aimed at identifying alternative approaches to reducing tooth decay.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health had come to the conclusion in1969 that focusing on reducing consumption of sucrose, "while theoretically possible," was not practical as a public health measure.
Thus aligned, the sugar industry trade organization and the NIH worked in parallel and ultimately together on developing alternative research approaches, with a substantial portion of the trade organization's own research priorities - 78 percent - directly incorporated into the 1971 National Caries Program's first request for research proposals from scientists.
"The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake," said first author Cristin Kearns, DDS, MBA, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar who discovered the archives. "It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than forty years ago."
Kearns discovered the papers in a collection that was left to the University of Illinois library by the late Roger Adams, a professor emeritus of organic chemistry who served on the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) and the scientific advisory board of the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF), which became the World Sugar Research Organization.
They include 1,551 pages of correspondence among sugar industry executives, meeting minutes and other relevant reports from between 1959 and 1971. Kearns and UCSF co-authors Stanton A. Glantz, PhD, and Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, analyzed the papers against documents from the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) to explore how the sugar industry may have influenced the research policies of the 1971 National Caries (Tooth Decay) Program.
The analysis showed that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the sugar industry funded research in collaboration with allied food industries on enzymes to break up dental plaque and a vaccine against tooth decay. It also shows they cultivated relationships with the NIDR and that a sugar industry expert panel overlapped by all but one member with the NIDR panel that influenced the priorities for the NIH tooth decay program. The majority of the research priorities and initial projects largely failed to produce results on a large scale, the authors found.