Scientists Paid to Downplay the Health Effects of Sugar in the 1960s

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This week NPR reported on an article recently published in Jama Internal Medicine about how the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists back in the 1960s to downplay the risks of consuming sugar. This article provides proof that the sugar industry actually did attempt to influence the scientific process which, in turn, most likely impacted the dietary guidelines that were released by the Federal Government during this time.

The Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), a predecessor of today’s Sugar Association, funded a research study that was a review of scientific studies and experiments about sugar and fat. The study, which had multiple faults that I will discuss, minimized the significance of any studies that had suggested that sugar might be linked to coronary heart disease. Instead, it concluded that fat should be cut from American diets to address heart disease.

The research study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, made no mention that it was funded by the sugar industry. The scientists from Harvard received the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s dollars to perform the research. One researcher, who was the Chairman of Harvard’s Public Health Nutrition Department, was also an ad hoc member of SRF’s board.

Holy conflict of interest, Batman.

The article highlighted a few key problems and inconsistencies in the research the scientists performed. Many of the studies examined were hand-selected by SRF. The scientists also applied different standards to different studies, looking critically at research implicating sugar but not those implicating fat (though they concluded that fat was the bad guy at the end of the day…). They dismissed some studies but used others that were the same kind of research of those they dismissed. Basically, they chose certain studies that would get them to the conclusion that they wanted.

The conclusion made by this week’s article was that the scientists back in the 60s based their findings on few study characteristics and no quantitative results.

Dietary guidelines were released by the Federal Government not too long after this study was published recommending that American’s decrease their consumption of fat. This led to the low-fat and fat-free diet crazes many of us were raised on. This recommendation was a boon to the sugar industry because when fat is removed from food, sugar is put into it so that it will actually taste good. Fast forward 50 years later and sugar is in almost every product on our supermarket shelves (I know this because I actually checked and then wrote about in The Hunt for Hidden Sugars). Heart disease rates have not gone down and obesity has skyrocketed.

Think the sugar industry is the only group that funds research? Nope. According to nutrition scholar Marion Nestle of New York University, who spent a year informally tracking industry-funded food studies, “roughly 90% of nearly 170 studies favored the sponsor’s interest.”

I don’t know about you, but that’ll make me think twice before I blindly follow the recommendations of food studies I read about in the news.

Photo credit:  Image courtesy of Judy van der Velden on flickr

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