The Sugar Saga: Part One

Daily Maverick has a new investigative food team and it is publishing a four-part series, ‘The Sugar Saga’. Part one looks at the origins of how fat came to be demonised, while the real demon, sugar, was exorcised in the human diet.

In the mid 20th century, the US’s Sugar Research Foundation launched an all-out offensive in defence of sugar, financing hundreds of studies that presented it in a favourable light. It caused untold damage to humanity.

Some 67 years ago, at the beginning of February 1954, 52-year-old Dr Henry Bohn Hass, a specialist in organic chemistry who would in 1969 be awarded the gold medal of the American Institute of Chemists, attended the eighth general meeting of the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists, in Denver, Colorado. 

At the time, he was president of the US’s Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), a position he had held since 1952. At that meeting he gave a speech titled “What’s new in sugar research?”, laying out some of the challenges faced by the US sugar industry.

“The Roper survey showed that there are three tangible reasons why people do not use sugar: fear of obesity, fear of caries [dental cavities] and fear of diabetes. Every doctor now knows that sugar does not cause diabetes; this fact is slowly diffusing to the laymen. If the anti-enzymes perform as expected against caries, it will enable us to concentrate on other problems of the sugar industry. Fear of obesity is undoubtedly the greatest single deterrent to sugar consumption. This is understandable; the principal nutritional function of sugar is to furnish calories and calories are what the obese person is trying to minimise,” said Hass.

He noted some of his concerns about the changing nature of the US diet: specifically that people were eating more meat, less flour and potatoes, and sugar consumption was not growing. He remarked, “Americans now have a strangely distorted diet with only 48.5% of the calories derived from carbohydrates, 40% from fat and 11.5% from protein.”

He went on to tell the technologists: “If the carbohydrate industries were to recapture this 20% of the calories in the US diet (the difference between the 40% which fat has and the 20% which it ought to have) and if sugar maintained its present share of the carbohydrate market, this change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar of more than a third with a tremendous improvement in general health.”

Simply put, his proposed solution would increase the average American’s diet from comprising 48.5% carbohydrates, to 68.5%. Hass understood that in order for this to happen, attitudes around sugar would have to improve, and fat would have to emerge as the main dietary villain. 

“This will never happen while the present climate of public opinion in regard to sugar remains unchanged. We are in an era – almost unique in world history – when in the United States, and a certain few other favoured countries, there is more food available than people can eat. Each food industry has to get up and fight for its place in the limited human stomach…. It is for these reasons that I am unhappy about advertising which implies that sugar is in some unique sense the cause of obesity.

“The attitudes toward sugar which No-Cal [zero calorie soda] advertising fosters will, unless vigorously opposed by efforts of the sugar industry, make it impossible for us to grow into the place in the American diet which we should rightfully occupy.”

He announced that on 21 September of the previous year (1953), members of the SRF had voted unanimously to spend $600,000 per year for at least three years to tell a positive story of sugar in the diet. 

“At last people who never had a course in biochemistry are going to learn that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems,” he told his audience.

And so began the Sugar Research Foundation’s (now known as the Sugar Association) all-out offensive in defence of sugar, which would see it finance hundreds of studies that presented sugar in a favourable light. For a good number of these studies, the foundation did not disclose its involvement and funding…..

Daily Maverick: Read the full article here