Shared from the 9/13/2016 Star Tribune eEdition

Sugar industry rigged research

It shaped decades of data on its role in heart disease.


• Sugar consumption should be less than 10% of total daily calories. That means you should eat no more than 200 calories from added sugar in a 2,000 daily calorie diet.

• Americans 6 and older consume about 14% of total daily calories from added sugars.

Source: CDC


The low-fat, high-sugar diet many turned to after being told to reduce fat intake is blamed for fueling the obesity crisis.

The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead, newly released historical documents show.

The internal sugar industry documents, discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease — including many of today’s dietary recommendations — may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the paper.

The documents show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of sugar, fat and heart research. The studies used in the review were hand-picked by the sugar group, and the article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat.

The Harvard scientists and the sugar executives are no longer alive. One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, who became the head of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal dietary guidelines. Another scientist was Fredrick J. Stare, the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department.

The Sugar Association said that the 1967 review was published at a time when medical journals didn’t typically require researchers to disclose funding sources or potential financial conflicts of interest. The industry “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities,” the Sugar Association said. Even so, it defended industry-funded research as playing an important role in scientific debate.

Though the influence-peddling revealed in the documents dates back nearly 50 years, the revelations are important because the debate about the relative harms of sugar and saturated fat continues , Glantz said. For many decades, health authorities encouraged Americans to improve their health by reducing their fat intake, which led many people to consume low-fat, high-sugar foods that some experts now blame for fueling the obesity crisis.

“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,” he said.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, wrote an editorial accompanying the paper that said the documents provided “compelling evidence” that the sugar industry initiated research “expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.”

“I think it’s appalling,” she said. “You just never see examples that are this blatant. The amount of money they were paid to do this is staggering.”

The JAMA paper relied on thousands of pages of correspondence and other documents that Cristin E. Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at U.C.S.F., discovered in archives at Harvard, the University of Illinois and other libraries. The documents show that in 1964, John Hickson, a top sugar industry executive, discussed a plan with others in the industry to shift public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs.”

At the time, studies had begun pointing to a relationship between high-sugar diets and high rates of heart disease. At the same time, other scientists, including Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, were investigating a competing theory that it was saturated fat and dietary cholesterol that posed the biggest risk for heart disease.

In 1965, Hickson enlisted the Harvard researchers to write a review that would debunk the anti-sugar studies. He paid them a total of $6,500 — the equivalent of $49,000 today. Hickson selected the papers for them to review and made it clear he wanted the result to favor sugar. Harvard’s Hegsted reassured the sugar executives. “We are well aware of your particular interest,” he wrote, “and will cover this as well as we can.”

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