How the sugar industry has distorted the science of health for over 50 years

The sugar industry has a long history of nutritional policy making in the United States, trying to mask the potential risks of consuming too many sugary products.

It wasn’t until this year, for example, that U.S. dietary guidelines finally recommended that people keep their intake of added sugars below 10 percent of their total calorie intake – decades after health advocates have started pushing for this measure. The sugar lobby had rejected this recommendation all this time.

New research, published today in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that Big Sugar may have done more than just advocate for favorable policies. For over 50 years, the industry has distorted scientific research dictating what questions are being asked about sugar, especially the role of sugar in promoting heart disease.

The article focuses on a debate that first arose in the 1950s, when the rate of heart disease began to rise in the United States. Scientists began to search for answers and focused on dietary saturated fat as the main contributor. (The energy we get from food comes from three types of nutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and protein.)

Maybe it wasn’t an accident. Through the review of archival documents, the JAMA The article shows how a sugar trade association helped bolster the hypothesis that eating too much saturated fat was the leading cause of the country’s heart problems, while questioning evidence showing that sugar could also be a culprit . Sugar raises triglycerides in the blood, which can also help harden the arteries and thicken the walls of the arteries, which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.

Today, the scientific consensus regarding the role that specific macronutrients play in the diet has changed. Researchers have come to the idea that a person’s overall eating habits are probably more important to health than the particular percentages of carbohydrate, fat, and protein ingested. But they also generally agree that certain types of fat are less harmful to health than others. (In particular, unsaturated fat appears to be better for cardiovascular disease risk than saturated and trans fat.) And that too much sugar can be just as bad as too much fat for the heart.

New JAMA The article reveals why the public may know less about the sugar-heart connection than they should.

How the sugar industry downplayed the role of sugar in heart disease

From the 1950s, notes the JAMA paper, led by Cristin Kearns of UC San Francisco, a business group called the Sugar Research Foundation, was concerned about evidence showing that a diet low in fat and high in sugar could increase cholesterol levels in the blood.

If sugar turns out to be a major contributor to heart problems, the group surmised, it could be devastating for sugar producers.

The strong epidemiological links between the “consumption” of sugar and saturated fat and mortality in 14 countries.
JAMA Internal Medicine

So the Sugar Research Foundation aligned itself with leading Harvard nutrition professors and paid them the equivalent of $ 48,900 (in 2016 dollars) for a two-part research review, published later in the New England Journal of Medicine, this would discredit the link between sugar and heart disease.

“[The review] concluded that there was “no doubt” that the only dietary intervention required to prevent coronary heart disease was to lower dietary cholesterol and replace polyunsaturated fat with saturated fat in the American diet, “the authors wrote of the study. In other words, researchers sponsored by sugar highlighted the role of saturated fat in heart problems and mitigated the risks of dietary sugar.

This 50-year-old incident is not ancient history

Researchers have unearthed this old business of sugar because it still resonates today, both in how we perceive the impact of sugar on the body and in the way science is carried out.

“This 50-year-old incident may sound like ancient history,” writes Marion Nestlé, a food policy professor at New York University, in an accompanying editorial, “but it’s quite relevant, especially because it answers some questions related to our is it really true that agribusiness companies have deliberately tried to manipulate research in their favor? Yes it does, and the practice continues. ”Nestlé has documented cases of companies funding nutritional studies that overwhelmingly yield results favorable to industry sponsors.


Javier Zarracina / Vox

“Our research emphasizes that industry-funded science must be scrutinized, not taken at face value,” said Kearns, lead author of the JAMA paper. “There are so many ways to manipulate a study – from the questions that are asked, from the way the information is analyzed, even to the way the conclusions are described in the paper.”

In this case, the involvement of the sugar industry in science has influenced not only the scientific enterprise but also public health policy and potentially the health of millions of people. Kearns points out that the most recent World Health Organization sugar guidelines focus on reducing consumption due to sugar’s role in obesity and tooth decay – not heart risk.

“I think [the WHO] I should have also looked at the relationship between sugar and heart disease, ”Kearns said. “And by shifting all the attention away from the sugar linked to heart disease, we’ve avoided asking these specific questions.

The Sugar Association – the trade group from which the Sugar Research Foundation in the JAMA paper has evolved – continues to push back the sugar-heart connection. More recently, the group called the American Heart Association’s recommendation that children eat no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day “puzzling”, arguing that it was not based on science and. that added sugars can have a healthy place in children’s diets.

Let’s face it, American breakfast is dessert

Rachel J. Bradford