Report touting chocolate as cavity-fighter derided

April 15, 1992|By Barry Meier | Barry Meier,New York Times News Service

For two years now, thousands of dentists have received newsletters from the Princeton Dental Resource Center with current reports on dental health and fighting cavities. And the center has asked the dentists to pass them on to their patients.

The newsletters contain some unexpected advice -- including bulletins of good news for chocolate lovers. One issue reports that eating chocolate might be as beneficial as an apple a day.

"So the next time, you snack on your favorite chocolate bar or bowl of peanuts," the newsletter said, "remember -- if enjoyed in moderation they can be good-tasting and might even inhibit cavities."

But you may want to hold on to your dental floss. Most dental researchers say there are gaping holes in the chocolate theory. Moreover, many dentists who distributed the newsletter did not know that the Princeton group was financed by a candy company, M&M/Mars.

The publications make no mention of the connection. And researchers and consumer experts are angry.

"This sounds like the most brazen way of doing things that I have ever heard of," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.

Among others who vigorously disagree with the newsletter's report on chocolate's potential anti-cavity power is the scientist on whose report it was largely based. Dr. Lawrence Wolinsky of the University of California at Los Angeles said his work had been mischaracterized.

Companies have always tried to influence public opinion, but dentists say the new attempts to turn chocolate into a friend of the tooth go too far.

Samuel Ostrow, a spokesman for the Princeton Dental Resource Center, denies that there was any mischaracterization of Dr. Wolinsky's study.

And Hans Fiuczynski, director of external relations for the M&M/Mars division of Mars Inc., rejected any suggestion that the company tried to influence the group's publications.

They both said the group's purpose was to provide dentists with timely and accurate information about new dental research.

Mars, a privately owned corporation, produces some of the biggest-selling candy products in the United States, including M&Ms, Mars, Snickers and Milky Way. And the company is vying with Hershey Food Corp. to be the country's largest candy producer, according to Roy D. Burry, an industry analyst with Kidder, Peabody.

The associate dean of research at Columbia University's School of Dentistry, Dr. Irwin Mandel, described some of the newsletter statements this way: "Basically, what you have is spin dentistry."

Mr. Fiuczynski said Mars established the Princeton Dental Resource Center in Princeton, N.J., in 1987 as a private foundation. Along with the newsletters, the group also produced technical pamphlets for dentists on such issues as dental chemotherapy, which some dentists describe as useful.

It is run by two dentists, Dr. Marilyn C. Miller and Dr. Thomas F. Truhe. Dr. Miller worked in dental education with the Veterans Administration and Dr. Truhe was a dentist in the Army. Dr. Mandel said he had respect for much of their work.

"We have never made any secret about it being funded by M&M," Mr. Fiuczynski said.

He added that Mars had contributed about $1 million annually to the group, a figure that represented at least 90 percent of its financing. Mr. Fiuczynski said Mars was concerned that placing its name on the Princeton group's publications might deter other companies from contributing to them.

Several dentists said they thought the organization was associated with Princeton University and that much of the research reported on in the newsletters was accurate.

In recent years, the rate of cavities among the nation's schoolchildren has fallen substantially. Most experts attribute that drop to the broad use of fluoride, a cavity-fighting chemical routinely added to water supplies and toothpaste.

But at the same time, sugar consumption has largely gone up. And companies that produce sugar-rich snacks have seized on that seemingly conflicting data in a bid to put a better polish on sugar's dental image.

"Manufacturers are trying to modify the most-hated list and imply that their products are not as damaging as others," Dr. Mandel said.

For example, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. has financed studies that are trying to show that sugared gums may actually be good for teeth because chewing them after meals increases saliva, which helps cleanse gums.

One dentist, Dr. Stanley Sirgutz of New York, said he became suspicious about the newsletter's backing when he read the favorable references to snacking and eating chocolate. At a conference, he learned from officials of the Princeton group that it was funded by Mars.

Mr. Fiuczynski insisted that eating chocolate in moderation posed no greater risk of tooth decay than other foods and it was never Mars' intent to mislead anyone.

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