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Sugar and cancer: A surprise connection or 50-year cover-up?

Can sugar cause cancer? It seems that evidence pointing this way was discovered in a study funded by the sugar industry nearly 50 years ago — but the work was never published.

Most of us — me included — are partial to the occasional sweet treat. But we all know that large amounts of sugar aren’t good for our health. In fact, there are plenty of studies showing links between sugar and diabetesheart disease, and even mental health.

Cancer only entered the mix relatively recently. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that showed that over half of mice fed a sucrose-rich diet developed breast cancer.

However, an article published this week in the journal PLOS Biology cites internal documents by the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), suggesting that knowledge of a possible link between sugar and cancer goes back as far as the 1960s.

Was it a cover-up? And what evidence is there to say that the odd donut might leave me with cancer?

Sugar and the microbiome: ‘Project 259’

Back in the 1960s, the debate was all about heart disease. Who is the culprit: sugar or fat?

A 1967 review article in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that dietary fats were to blame. What wasn’t clear at the time, though, was that the authors received funding from the SRF equivalent to roughly $50,000 in today’s money to publish their review.

Disclosure of conflict of interest wasn’t mandatory until the 1980s, so technically, this wasn’t wrong. But what it did do was set the scene for more clandestine research to follow.

The review revealed that rats fed a high-sucrose diet had higher serum cholesterol levels than those on a starch-based diet. The authors speculated that gut bacteria were to blame.

And so ‘Project 259’ was born in 1968. This was a study to compare “the nutritional effects of [bacterial] organisms in the intestinal tract” in rats fed sucrose versus those fed starch.

A substantial funding grant — the equivalent of $187,583 in today’s money — went to W.F.R. Pover, from the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

Stanton A. Glantz is the senior author of the paper published in the journal PLOS Biology and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

He cites an SRF internal report, which explains that “[a]mong [Project 259’s] observations was […] that the urine from rats on the basic diet contained an inhibitor of beta-glucuronidase activity in a quantity greater than that from sucrose-fed animals. This is one of the first demonstrations of a biological difference between sucrose and starch fed rats.”

So, there was a difference. But what does this have to do with cancer?


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