The sugar industry has had a hold on government sugar regulation for over 50 years, and newly discovered archives reveal their role in dental cavity research. Research out of the University of California, San Francisco lays out the story of how the sugar industry’s targeted influence on dental research shaped the way cavity research continued between 1959 and 1971.

"These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in the tobacco industry in the same era," the study’s coauthor Stanton A. Glantz, a cardiology professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said in a press release. "Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting the public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits over public health."

Researchers pored over the 319 industry documents and uncovered the Sugar Industry Research Foundation’s knowledge of sugar-causing cavities as early as 1950. They immediately began working with the National Institute of Dental Research to implement alternative approaches to allow people to continue eating sugar without getting cavities, which went as far as developing a vaccine for tooth decay called “Project 269.” Ample research began to focus more on figuring out how to make consumed sugar “less destructive to teeth,” and focus was taken away from simply reducing sugar intake.

"The dental community has always known that preventing tooth decay required restricting sugar intake," said the study’s coauthor Cristin Kearns, a UCSF postdoctoral scholar who first discovered the archives. "It was disappointing to learn that the policies we are debating today could have been addressed more than 40 years ago."

Tooth decay is the breakdown of tooth enamel as a result of bacteria that produces acid on the tooth’s surface, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though cavities are largely preventable, they still make it on the list of most common chronic diseases of children. And what do children love? Candy. The truth is, tooth decay existed long before the dawn of Snickers bars, but the influence of Big Sugar quickly caught up in order to prevent sugar regulations as a result of research.

"There is robust evidence now linking excess sugar consumption with heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease, in addition to tooth decay," said the study’s lead researcher Laura A. Schmidt, who also led the launch of the UCSF SugarScience Initiative. "Times have definitely changed since that era, but this is a stark lesson in what can happen if we are not careful about maintaining scientific integrity."

Source: Kearns CE, Glantz SA, and Schmidt LA. Sugar Industry Influence on the Scientific Agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research’s 1971 National Caries Program: A Historical Analysis of Internal Documents. PLoS Medicine. 2015.