In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat, according to a newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The article draws on internal documents to show that an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to “refute” concerns about sugar’s role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.
The sugar-funded research was a literature review, examining a variety of studies and experiments. It was delayed, according to the newly uncovered documents, because more and more studies raising concerns about sugar were being published even as the scientists were working on their rebuttals.
The authors of the new study say that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.
“It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” article co-author Stanton Glantz told the New York Times.
The SRF was clear that its “particular interest” was in evaluating studies of sugar. And it was certainly happy with the result: “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print,” John Hickson, SRF vice president and director of research, told one of the scientists.
The scientists had raised concerns about the validity of research that suggested sugar could play a role in coronary heart disease, concluded that reducing fat consumption was undoubtedly the best way to reduce coronary heart disease.
“It is always appropriate to question the validity of individual studies,” lead author Cristin Kearns told Bloomberg via email. But, she says, “the authors applied a different standard” to different studies — looking very critically at research that implicated sugar, and ignoring problems with studies that found dangers in fat.
The documents in question are five decades old, but the larger issue is of the moment, as Marion Nestle notes in a commentary in the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine:
“This 50-year-old incident may seem like ancient history, but it is quite relevant, not least because it answers some questions germane to our current era. Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.”
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