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Sugar Industry Paid Scientists to Shape the Debate Around Heart Disease, Sugar and Fat

According to latest historical documents, in 1960s, the sugar industry paid researchers to minimize the link between heart disease and sugar, and to show the saturated fat as the main culprit instead.

The recently discovered internal sugar documents were published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine and discovered by a researcher at the University of California. They point out that 5 decades of research into the nutrition role and heart disease, as well as many of the current dietary recommendations have been probably shaped by the large sugar industry.

The author of the JAMA paper, and a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F., Stanton Glantz, said that sugar industry was able to derail the sugar discussion for decades.

The Sugar Association, previously known as the Sugar Research Foundation, has paid about $50,000 in today’s dollars to three Harvard scientists to publish a review of research on fat, heart disease, and sugar which dated from 1967. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine has published the article, and the sugar group has handicapped the studies included in the review, resulting in played down link between heart health and sugar, questioning the abilities of saturated fat.

Although the discovery in the documents is about a period around 50 years ago, latest studies have shown that the food industry never stopped impacting the nutrition science.

A New York Times article revealed that the largest producer of sugary drinks in the world, Coca-Cola, had funded millions of dollars to researchers whose job was to minimize the link between sugary beverages and obesity. The Associated Press stated that producers of candies have paid researchers to “prove” that kids who consume candy tend to have lower weight than those who don’t.

The sugar executives and the Harvard scientists with whom them work are no longer alive. D. Mark Hegsted was one of the corrupted scientists who become the head of nutrition at the USDA. Dr. Fredrick J. Stare was another scientist who become the chairman of the nutrition department of Harvard.

The Sugar Association claimed that the review dating from 1967 was published at a period when researchers weren’t required by the medical journals to disclose funding sources. This came as their reponse to the JAMA report. It wasn’t until 1984 that the New England Journal of Medicine started requiring financial disclosures.

Dr. Glantz said that the discoveries are significant since the debate about the potential harms of saturated fat and sugar continues today. For several decades, Americans were encouraged by the health officials to lower their fat intake, turning them towards high-sugar, low-fat foods, that some scientists nowadays blame for causing the US obesity crisis.

He admitted that what the sugar industry did was a smart move, especially if the review papers were published in a well-known journal. In this way, they shaped the general scientific discussion. The dietary recommendations by the government pointed the saturated fat as the culprit of heart disease, while linking the sugar as just a cause of tooth decay and empty calories. But, the research of Dr. Hegsted affected these dietary recommendations.

Now, the warnings about saturated fat remain a cornerstone of the dietary guidelines of the government, although in the past couple of years the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association and other health authorities have also started to warn that high sugar intake can raise the risk of heart disease.

The editorial written by the professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, Marion Nestle, accompanies the new paper where she states that the documents gave “compelling evidence” that a research was initiated by the sugar industry to absolve sugar from being an important risk factor for coronary heart disease.

The nutrition department’s chairman at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Dr. Walter Willett, emphasized that the documents serve as a reminder that research should receive public funding instead of industry funding, even though the academic conflict-of-interest rules have significantly changed since the 60s.

He explains that in those days, researches had limited data to evaluate the sugar and fat risks, as oppose to nowadays when thanks to the massive data researchers have at their disposal, they have proved sugar-sweetened beverages and other refined carbohydrates increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, emphasizing the importance of dietary fat.

The JAMA paper was relied on documents discovered by the postdoctoral fellow at U.C.S.F. Cristin E. Kearns, found in the libraries of Harvard, the University of Illinois etc. as well os of thousands of other pages of correspondence. According to the documents, the top sugar industry executive, John Hickson has elaborated a plan with others in the industry in 1964, whose goal was to use their information, research, and legislative programs to shift the public opinion.

Researches at that time started showing the link between high-sugar diets and the high rates of heart disease in US. Other researchers such as Ancel Keys, a prominent Minnesota physiologist, were studying a competing theory that the major risk for heart disease are saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.

In 1965, Harvard researchers were paid $49,000 in today’s dolars by Mr. Hickson to make a review which will debunk the anti-sugar studies. He wanted outcome of the review that would favor sugar, so he gave them selected papers to review.

Dr. Hegsted from Harvard said they know what the interest of sugar executives is, and will cover this as well as they can. The Harvard researchers continuously shared their early drafts from the review with Mr. Hickson, pleasing his demands. They managed to give far more credence to the data on saturated fat, dismissing the one on sugar as weak.

As Dr. Glantz explains, the review was published, decreasing the debate about heart disease and sugar, and helping the low-fat diets get the support of many health authorities.