Did sugar industry-funded research unfairly divert science and policy from the health risks of sugar in the 1960s? Not so, write historians — ScienceDaily

In recent years, high-profile claims in academic literature and the popular press have alleged that the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and instead emphasize the dangers of fat. food. In a new journal article Science, historians from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the City University of New York dispute these claims by carefully examining the evidence.

The article focuses on interpreting documents unearthed in the historical archive about sugar industry funding of Harvard nutrition scientists in the 1960s, which some experts have identified as “irrefutable” evidence that the sugar industry has successfully meddled with science and “derailed” the course of science. dietary policy. The claims came amid a shift in focus on nutrition from fat to sugar, with warnings about the artery-clogging risks of butter and beef taking precedence over new efforts to tax sugary drinks, even as debates continue over the science of obesity. prevention.

Co-authors David Merritt Johns and Gerald M. Oppenheimer use archival research and oral history to argue that there is a lack of evidence that this “sugar conspiracy” actually happened. “There was no ‘smoking gun’. There was no ‘sugar conspiracy’ – at least not one that we identified,” the authors write.

Emphasizing that they are not defending the sugar industry and that their work does not undermine other efforts to expose the tactics of “merchants of doubt”, the authors argue that other scholars who have looked into the issues in question misinterpreted the sequence of events. In the mid-1960s, Harvard nutrition scientists, led by D. Mark Hegsted, had just completed a study showing that eating saturated fat from foods such as butter raised cholesterol levels, much to the dismay of the dairy industry, which had funded the research. The study also looked at sugar, which showed little effect. The sugar industry later learned of the findings and gave Harvard scientists money to review the literature and work out their theories.

Johns and Oppenheimer note that Harvard’s work on dietary fat relied on the dominant nutritional paradigm of the time, in which sugar played almost no role. The American Heart Association and the US government embraced the low-fat concept, which was based on cutting-edge metabolic and epidemiological research, including the Framingham Heart Study. Claims that sugar caused heart disease had much less empirical and expert support.

The authors also point out that research collaborations with the food industry were ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s, as they are today. Both proponents of the dietary fat hypothesis and proponents of the sugar theory have received funding from food companies seeking to defend their interests. Although the Harvard authors did not disclose that they had been supported by the sugar industry, such financial disclosures were then not required. The authors also note that the National Dairy Council has funded key studies supporting the dietary fat theory, raising questions about the overall impact of the sugar industry.

“We believe it is a mistake to demonize, almost instinctively, scientists and their research when there is evidence of private funding,” the authors write. “Our analysis illustrates how conspiratorial narratives in science can distort the past in the service of contemporary causes and obscure the real uncertainty that surrounds certain aspects of research, hampering efforts to formulate good evidence-based policies.”

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Material provided by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Rachel J. Bradford