Another day, another foray into the wonderful world of human experimentation! Here's an experiment that was conducted by candy companies and dentists, and involved the inhabitants of a Swedish mental asylum. It also, I think, was influenced by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Enjoy.

It seems like dentists and sugar companies would be natural enemies, like cats and dogs, bears and wolves, and crocodiles and poodles. They've always been at each other's throats. Except for once. Once, in Sweden, the confectionery companies and the dentists teamed up and it went very, very badly for nearly everyone involved.


It all started in the mid-1940s in Sweden, when, to be fair, everyone in the region had a lot of things to worry about. The National Dental Service was trying to reduce all that worry just a bit by stopping the proliferation of cavities. This was a problem, because no one knew what caused the sudden spread of cavities. Some said it was the result of more sugar in the national diet, but Swedish sugar and candy companies were so sure that their product was not to blame that they offered to help sponsor a study. The only difficulty was finding anyone who would be willing to take on a diet that was likely to rot their teeth out of their head.

That's where Vipeholm came into the picture. It wasn't so much an asylum as a home for the "uneducable." Up until 1947, the government had been running a study on the patients to see how vitamin supplements might affect their health. The National Dental Service quietly changed the study to see how patient's teeth would respond to a diet high in sugar, especially sticky sweets. Confectionery companies donated chocolate and caramel. Sugar was also dissolved in water and baked into bread. Control patients were given fats instead of sugars. Everyone had their saliva tested every fifteen minutes. This went on for two years, until about fifty patients had unusable teeth. Then the patients were switched to diets richer in carbohydrates and the cavity rate declined.


Needless to say, these results did not go over well with the sugar and candy companies. They delayed publication for as long as they could. This was unethical, but they probably suffered more from the delay than anyone else. When the results were finally published, the outcry over the delay and the widespread accusations that candy companies were "buying" public officials made more waves than a simple study might have on its own.

The experiment, scientifically, was a success in that it showed clear, inarguable results. This success was important, as it was the largest research study that had ever been conducted in Sweden up to that point. Over six hundred patients had been part of it - and no one questioned the ethics of it until the 1990s. Today it has an infamous reputation, for obvious reasons. It is still possible, however, to find studies that cite and discuss the results at Vipeholm.

[Via Medical Student Journal of Australia, Medical News Today.]

Middle Image: Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine