According to newly uncovered documents, in the 1960s the sugar industry began funding research to cast doubt on sugar’s role in heart disease, mainly by pointing the finger at fat instead.
A recently published analysis based on correspondence between a sugar trade group and researchers from Harvard University clearly demonstrates how food and beverage makers actively shape the public’s understanding of nutrition for their own financial gain.
In 1964 a group known as The Sugar Association went over a campaign to address any “negative attitudes toward sugar” after studies linking sugar with heart disease began to emerge, according to documents that were dug up from the now public archives. The following year the group approved a project called “Project 226,” which involved paying researchers from Harvard the equivalent of todays $48,900 USD for an article reviewing scientific literature, supplying the materials they wanted reviewed and reviewing drafts of the article prior to publication.
The result was an article, published in 1967, which concluded there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary guideline necessary to prevent heart disease effectively. The consistency of the literature on fat and cholesterol were overstated by researchers, and studies on sugar were severely downplayed, according to the analysis.
One of the employees of the sugar industry group even wrote to one of the authors about how pleased they were with the outcome of the article, saying, “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print.”
When the New England Journal of Medicine published the article, the sugar industry’s funding of and role in the study were not disclosed. Author disclosures were not requested by the journal until 1984.
In a recently published editorial that accompanied the sugar industry’s analysis, New York University Professor of Nutrition Marion Nestle noted that for decades following the study, health officials and scientists were focused solely on reducing saturated fat and not sugar to prevent heart disease.
Is Fat Really the Enemy?
The hugely successful “low-fat” and “fat-free” movements soon began. Food and beverage manufacturers started reducing or removing fat from their products in order to appeal to the public, but they soon discovered that by removing the fat from foods, they also took away much of the flavour. They needed some way to compensate for this loss, and sugar was the answer — and not just a little bit of sugar, but copious amounts. Ironically, while this allowed them to market their products as fat-free, it did not make their products fat-proof, since when processed by the body, sugar is stored directly as fat.
Scientists are still working to find the links between diet and heart disease, and increasingly their inquiries are leading them toward sugar and away from fat, according to Nestle. A committee advising the federal government on dietary guidelines says that the available evidence “shows no appreciable relationship” between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, though limiting saturated fats is still recommended.
In fact, the American Heart Association cites a study published in 2014 that says that too much added sugar can increase the risk of heart disease, though the authors of that particular study claim that the biological reasons for the link are not yet completely understood.
More recently, the journal of JAMA Internal Medicine published an analysis in t based on 31 pages of correspondence between the sugar group and one of the Harvard researchers who authored the review. Former dentist Cristin Kearns is using its findings in an ongoing project aimed at revealing the sugar industry’s decades-long efforts to counter any science that links sugar to negative health effects, including diabetes.
Follow the Money…
In a statement, the Sugar Association admitted it “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities,” but that funding disclosures were not standard procedure when the review was published. The group even questioned Kearns’ “continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences” to play into the current public sentiment against sugar, but I think it’s important to ask here what Kearns stands to gain by researching and revealing this information.
The Sugar Association said it was a “disservice” that industry-funded research in general is considered “tainted,” though I believe it to be self-evident that industry-funded research should not be allowed in the first place — or at the very least, their results must be replicated by an unbiased party before being considered for publication.
Companies like Coca-Cola Co. and Kellogg Co. regularly fund studies that end up becoming a part of scientific literature and are even cited by other researchers and touted in news releases. I fail to see how this isn’t a gross conflict of interest…