The Corn Refiners Association Used Front Groups to Spread Disinformation about Sugar and Health

Photo: Oregon State University/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

The sugar industry quietly funded public relations firms and front groups to sow disinformation about the health effects of added sugar.

The sugar industry has taken a covert approach to spreading disinformation by hiring high-powered public relations firms and funding front groups. Unlike trade associations, which make clear that they represent industry and whose member companies are often publicly listed, arrangements with private public relations firms and front groups make it harder to trace disinformation back to its company source.

Founded and run by lobbyist Rick Berman through his firm, Berman and Company, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is a nonprofit organization that claims to be “devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices,” but which really functions to promote the interests of corporate clients who do not wish to be directly associated with certain messaging campaigns. The Corn Refiners Association (CRA) funded Berman and Company to run a public relations campaign intended to appear independent without disclosing the corporate interests behind the campaign.

The product that the CRA is working to protect? High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a type of added sugar made from corn starch. From 1970 to 2000, in parallel with increased production of corn syrup and rising obesity rates, Americans expanded their sugar consumption by 25 percent, reaching an average daily intake almost three times the recommended limit. Scientific research continues to generate evidence for a causal relationship between sugar consumption and the incidence of major chronic metabolic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension. Sugar consumption is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular mortality, independent from sugar’s effect on total caloric intake and obesity.

Audrae Erickson, then-president of the CRA, wrote in the trade group’s internal emails in 2009 that “our sponsorship of this campaign is confidential. We are funding Berman & Co. directly, not the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is running the ads. If asked, please feel free to state the following: ‘The Corn Refiners Association is not funding the Center for Consumer Freedom. It is not surprising, however, that the food and beverage industry would want to defend this highly versatile ingredient.’” The ads sought to undermine consumers’ trust in the facts provided by scientific and public health experts, making them easier targets for misinformation, presented as fact, from corn syrup interests.

Sugar interests have also funded health groups to spread misinformation, giving industry messages a grassroots appearance. In 2011, the Sugar Association paid $350,000 to Citizens for Health for their campaign to mobilize public opposition to the CRA’s push to change the name of HFCS to corn sugar. Citizens for Health, which self-identifies as the “consumer voice of the natural health community,” has been accused of being a front group for the sugar industry. Whether or not it is, the Sugar Association did provide more than half of the organization’s funding in 2011. Their activities use arguments about different types of sugar to confuse and distract the public from the more fundamental issue of detrimental health effects of added sugars in all forms.

The International Food Information Council Foundation is another organization funded by the food and beverage industry, including the Corn Refiners Association, that provides significant misinformation about the adverse health effects of sugar. The organization’s “Sugar and Health Resource” webpage claims that “to date, there is no conclusive evidence of a causative effect of sugars on chronic diseases.” The organization also has produced several fact sheets on sugar that downplay its health effects. One fact sheet reads, “Although more research is needed in some areas, in general, the available data show no direct link between moderate consumption of sugars and serious diseases or obesity”—but fails to define “moderate” or to note that many Americans are not consuming just moderate amounts of sugar, thanks in part to the added sugar in processed foods. Such industry-supported groups have played a large role in perpetuating misinformation around sugar in the public sphere.

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