Sugar industry has funded research to cast doubt on health dangers of sugar, report says
The sugar industry began funding research that casts doubt on the role of sugar in heart disease – in part by pointing the finger at fat – as early as the 1960s, according to an analysis of recently uncovered documents.
The analysis published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine is based on a correspondence between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard University, and is the latest example of how food and beverage manufacturers are trying to shape public understanding of nutrition.
In 1964, the group now known as Sugar Assn. discussed internally a campaign to tackle “negative attitudes toward sugar” after studies began linking sugar and heart disease, according to documents from public records. The following year, the group approved “Project 226,” which involved paying Harvard researchers today’s equivalent of $ 48,900 for an article examining the scientific literature, providing the documents they wanted. reviewing and receiving drafts of the article.
The resulting article published in 1967 concluded that there was “no doubt” that lowering cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease. The researchers overestimated the consistency of the fat and cholesterol literature while downplaying the sugar studies, according to the analysis.
The funding and role of the sugar industry were not disclosed when the article was published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal didn’t start asking for authors’ disclosure until 1984.
In an editorial published Monday that accompanied the analysis of the sugar industry, Marion Nestlé, professor of nutrition at New York University, noted that for decades after the study, scientists and health officials were are focused on reducing saturated fat, not sugar, to prevent heart disease.
While scientists are still struggling to understand the links between diet and heart disease, concern has shifted in recent years to sugars and away from fats, Nestle said.
A committee that advised the federal government on dietary guidelines said the available evidence showed “no appreciable relationship” between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, although it still recommended limiting saturated fat.
The American Heart Assn. cites a study published in 2014 as saying that too much added sugar can increase the risk of heart disease, although the authors of that study say the biological reasons for the link are not fully understood.
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The findings released Monday are part of an ongoing project by former dentist Cristin Kearns to reveal decades-long efforts by the sugar industry to counter science linking sugar to negative effects on sugar. health, especially diabetes. The latest work, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is primarily based on 31 pages of correspondence between the sugar group and one of the Harvard researchers who wrote the journal.
In a press release, the Sugar Assn. said he “should have exercised more transparency in all of his research activities,” but that funding disclosures were not the norm when the journal was published. The group also questioned Kearns’ “continued attempts to reframe historical events” to play into current public sentiment against sugar.
Assn. said it was a “disservice” that industry-funded research in general was viewed as “flawed”.
Companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Kellogg Co. as well as commodity groups such as beef and blueberries regularly fund studies that are part of the scientific literature, are cited by other researchers, and are featured in press releases.
Companies say they adhere to science standards, and many researchers believe industry funding is crucial to advancing science given the growing competition for government funds. But critics say such studies are often thinly veiled marketing that undermines efforts to improve public health.
“Sponsorship of food companies, whether intentionally manipulative or not, undermines public confidence in the science of nutrition,” wrote Nestlé, a longtime critic of industry funding for science.
The authors of the analysis note that they were unable to interview the key players cited in the documents because they are no longer alive. They also note that there is no direct evidence that the sugar industry wrote or modified the manuscript, that the documents provide a limited window into the activities of the sugar industry group, and that the roles of other industries and Nutrition leaders in shaping the heart disease discussion have not been investigated.
Nonetheless, they say the documents highlight why policymakers should consider giving less weight to industry-funded studies. Although funding disclosures are now common practice in the scientific community, the role behind the scenes sponsors play is still not always clear.
In June, The Associated Press reported on a study funded by the Candy Industry Trade Group that found that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t. The National Confectioners Assn., Which touted the results in a press release, provided commentary to the authors on a project even though a disclosure said it had no role in the document. The association said its suggestions did not change the results.
In November, the AP also reported on emails showing Coca-Cola was instrumental in founding a nonprofit that said its mission was to fight obesity, even though the group has publicly stated that the soda maker has “no input” into its business. A document released to Coke said the group would counter “shrill rhetoric” from “public health extremists.”
Coca-Cola later conceded that it had not been transparent and the group subsequently disbanded.
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