50 years ago, the sugar industry quietly paid scientists to blame Fat: The Two-Way: NPR

A recently uncovered cache of internal documents reveals that the sugar industry downplayed the risks of sugar in the 1960s.

Luis Ascui / Getty Images

hide caption

toggle legend

Luis Ascui / Getty Images

A recently uncovered cache of internal documents reveals that the sugar industry downplayed the risks of sugar in the 1960s.

Luis Ascui / Getty Images

In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the dangers of fats, according to an article recently published 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 the possible role of sugar in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists who did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, without disclosure of the financing of the sugar industry.

The sugar-funded project in question was a review of the literature, examining a variety of studies and experiments. He suggested that there were major issues with all of the studies that involved sugar, and concluded that cutting fat from American diets was the best way to fight coronary heart disease.

The authors of the new article say that over the past five decades, the sugar industry has attempted to influence the scientific debate on the relative risks of sugar and fats.

“It was a very smart thing that the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if published in a high profile journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” said the co- New York Times author Stanton Glantz.

Money online

In the article published Monday, authors Glantz, Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt do not attempt to argue for a link between sugar and coronary heart disease. Their interest is in the process. They say the documents reveal the sugar industry is trying to influence scientific research and debate.

The researchers note that they worked within certain limits: “We were unable to interview the key players involved in this historic episode because they are deceased,” they write. Other organizations have also raised concerns about fat, they note.

There is no evidence that the SRF directly edited the manuscript published by Harvard scientists in 1967, but there is “circumstantial” evidence that the interests of the sugar lobby shaped the findings of the review, according to the researchers. researchers.

On the one hand, there is motivation and intention. In 1954, the researchers note, the president of the SRF gave a speech describing a great business opportunity.

If Americans could be persuaded to follow a low fat diet – for their health – they would have to replace that fat with something else. Per capita sugar consumption in the United States could increase by a third.

But in the 1960s, the SRF became aware of “common reports that sugar is a less desirable food source of calories than other carbohydrates,” as John Hickson, vice president and chief research officer of the SRF in a document.

He recommended that the industry fund their own studies – “Then we can release the data and refute our critics.”

The following year, after the publication of several scientific articles suggesting a link between sucrose and coronary heart disease, the SRF approved the draft literature review. He ended up paying around $ 50,000 in today’s dollars for the research.

One of the researchers was the chairman of Harvard’s public health nutrition department and an ad hoc member of the SRF board of directors.

“A different standard” for different studies

Glantz, Kearns and Schmidt claim that many of the articles reviewed in the journal were hand-picked by SRF, and it was implied that the sugar industry would expect them to be criticized.

In a letter, SRF’s Hickson said the organization’s “particular interest” was to assess studies focusing on “carbohydrates in the form of sucrose.”

“We are well aware of this,” replied one of the scientists, “and we will cover this as best we can.”

The project took longer than expected as more studies were published suggesting that sugar may be linked to coronary heart disease. But it was finally released in 1967.

Hickson was certainly pleased with the result: “Let me assure you that this is exactly what we had in mind and we look forward to its release in print,” he told one of the scientists.

The review downplayed the importance of research suggesting that sugar may play a role in coronary heart disease. In some cases, scientists have alleged incompetence of investigators or flawed methodology.

“It’s always appropriate to question the validity of individual studies,” Kearns told Bloomberg via email. But, she says, “the authors applied a different standard” to different studies – looking very critically at the research involving sugar and ignoring the issues with the studies that revealed the dangers of fats.

Epidemiological studies of sugar consumption – which examine real-world patterns of health and disease – have been dismissed for having too many possible hindering factors. Experimental studies have been rejected for being too different from real life.

A study that found a health benefit when people ate less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed because this diet change was not feasible.

Another study, in which rats were given a diet low in fat and high in sugar, was rejected because “such diets are rarely eaten by humans”.

Harvard researchers then turned to studies that looked at the risks of fat – which included the same type of epidemiological studies they rejected when it came to sugar.

Citing “few study characteristics and no quantitative results,” as Kearns, Glantz, and Schmidt put it, they concluded that reducing fat was “without question” the best dietary intervention to prevent coronary heart disease.

Sugar lobby: “Transparency standards were not the norm”

In a statement, the Sugar Association – which originated from the SRF – said it was difficult to comment on events from so long ago.

“We recognize that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published, funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm. they are today, ”the association said.

“Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that industry-funded research is labeled flawed,” the statement continued. “What is often missing in the dialogue is that the industry-funded research has been instructive in addressing key issues.”

The documents in question are five decades old, but the biggest problem is still current, as Marion Nestlé notes in a commentary to the same issue of JAMA Internal Medicine:

As for the authors of articles who have searched the documents around this funding, they offer two suggestions for the future.

“Policy committees should consider giving less weight to studies funded by the food industry,” they write.

They also call for further research into the links between added sugars and coronary heart disease.

Rachel J. Bradford