The Center for Public Integrity is one of the country’s oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations. Their mission — “to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism” — is one we highly respect.
Today, journalist Chris Young published a terrific, must-read article on how industry, via trade association The Calorie Control Council, attacked a Purdue University researcher who raised some concerns about artificial sweeteners. That specific case aside, the piece takes an in-depth look at the Calorie Control Council’s standard operating procedures when it comes to defending industry’s profits above all else.
- “Susan Swithers is no stranger to food industry criticism. In fact, the Purdue University professor anticipates a swift public relations blitz from trade groups representing diet- and low-calorie food companies every time she publishes a study about the health effects of artificial sweeteners.”
- “They reflexively put out a press release that spins it as, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with the study,’” says Swithers, a professor of behavioral neuroscience who has been researching artificial sweeteners for the past decade. “I’m sure I’m on somebody’s Google Alert at this point.”
- “In her widely publicized work, published as an opinion article in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, Swithers reviewed recent studies on artificial sweeteners and concluded that people who frequently consume sugar substitutes “may … be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
- The strongest, most wide-ranging attacks came from the Calorie Control Council, a lesser-known industry group with an innocuous-sounding name, a long history and a penchant for stealthy public relations tactics. The organization, which is run by an account executive with a global management and public relations firm, represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry. But it functions more like an industry front group than a trade association.”
- “Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says artificial sweeteners should be used like a nicotine patch to help wean people off of sugary foods and beverages that are more clearly tied to weight gain and diabetes. But when it comes to long-term health effects, he says, “There is some element of unknown in most of the artificial sweeteners.”
- “Industry will of course say, ‘This has been approved by the FDA and tested,’” says Willett, who was the target of industry criticism for a 2012 study he co-authored that raised the possibility that aspartame could be linked to cancer. “But I think the public needs to be aware that this is not absolute evidence of safety.”
- “In response to the Purdue professor’s conclusions, two scientists from Baylor College of Medicine — Craig A. Johnston and John Foreyt — submitted a letter to Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, the journal that published Swithers’ paper. In their letter published online, the authors called Swithers’ paper “highly selective, misleading, and biased” and noted that artificial sweeteners “are safe and provide individuals seeking to lose or maintain weight a healthy alternative to help to decrease caloric consumption.”
- “But the authors did not submit a conflict of interest statement with their letter. Only after the journal posted the letter online did editors learn that Foreyt had ties to industry. A spokeswoman for the journal confirmed that editors contacted the authors asking them to submit a disclosure statement to be published in the journal’s print edition.”
- “Unlike other trade associations, including the International Sweeteners Association and the American Beverage Association, the Council does not publicly list its members. Nor does its website reveal its board of directors, which can be found on the trade group’s annual tax documents. According to the Council’s 2012 tax filing, the board includes officials from soda companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, as well as artificial sweetener manufacturers like Ajinomoto and Merisant Company.”
- “The Council orchestrated its first major public relations campaign in 1977. In response to an FDA proposal to ban the first artificial sweetener —saccharin — after studies linked it to cancer in rats, the industry group took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers discrediting the science behind the proposed ban. The ads encouraged readers to contact government officials and “let them know that you support postponement of a ban” until further studies on saccharin were completed.”
- “The Council’s “media campaign was phenomenally effective at mobilizing consumers of artificial sweeteners for political action,” Carolyn de la Pena, a professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis, wrote in her 2010 book “Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.” The ban on saccharin was never implemented, and the food additive remains on the market today.”
- “Public health advocates critical of food industry influence say the Calorie Control Council’s public relations strategy, as evidenced by its attempts to discredit Swithers’ paper, follows a well-established industry playbook: “Attack the science, recruit sympathetic scientists, do public relations, and then do everything possible behind the scenes to protect the industry,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.”
- “Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who has written a guide to food industry front groups, says the Council operates “mostly under the radar, which is part of what makes them effective.” But despite being relatively unknown, she adds, “the fact that they’ve been able to create confusion and doubt over the studies that question the safety of artificial sweeteners means they are highly effective.”