Sugar Industry Manipulated Heart Studies, Review Findings

A sugar industry group funded studies that downplayed the role added sugars play in heart disease, researchers reported Monday.

Studies funded by the lobby group have helped steer the United States toward a policy that focuses almost exclusively on fat as the main cause of heart disease, ignoring the huge role that sugary foods play, the researchers said. .

Bottles of Fanta are displayed in the cooler of a food truck in San Francisco, California July 22, 2014. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors placed a measure on the November 2014 ballot for a $2 soda tax cents per ounce. The measurement did not pass.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

They compare the sugar industry’s approach to tactics used by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on research showing that tobacco causes cancer and heart disease.

And that kind of practice continues today, experts said in a pair of articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine.

“These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in the tobacco industry around the same time,” said Stanton Glantz of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

Related: New Dietary Guidelines Advise Cutting Down on Sugar

Cristin Kearns, a University of California San Francisco researcher who focuses on the sugar industry, made the discovery when she found a collection of papers at the University of Illinois library from the estate of Roger Adams, a professor of chemistry who was scientific advisor to the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) – now the Sugar Association. Kearns and his colleagues also found papers by Harvard professor Mark Hegsted, who led the Sugar Research Foundation studies.

Both men, prominent nutrition researchers, are deceased.

“These tactics are strikingly similar to what we saw in the tobacco industry around the same time.”

“Together with other recent analyzes of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest that the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt on the dangers of sucrose while promoting the fats as the dietary culprit of coronary heart disease,” Kearns, Glantz and colleagues wrote.

“In the 1980s, few scientists believed that added sugars played a significant role in coronary heart disease, and the first dietary guidelines for Americans in 1980 focused on reducing total fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol to prevention of coronary heart disease,” they added.

“I was shocked,” said New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, who commented on the findings in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Mark Hegsted was kind of a nutrition hero,” Nestlé told NBC News. “So it was a little shocking to find out that he was getting very large sums of money from the Sugar Research Foundation to do what they wanted.”

The pressure can be subtle. But Nestlé said funding and industry pressure can encourage researchers to look at one source of data while ignoring others.

Related: One Serving of Sugar a Day Can Be Dangerous

One of the results of the focus on fat alone as a cause of heart disease has been a giant push by the food industry towards “fat-free” products loaded with added sugars and processed carbohydrates – it now turns out that they are as important a cause of heart disease as fat. is, and also a direct cause of diabetes.

“It’s fantastic that these documents have come to light. We know they are relevant for today,” said Nestlé.

“We see that similar things continue until now. It’s great to have this kind of evidence.

Glantz found and made public tobacco industry articles that helped the Department of Justice prosecute major tobacco companies and their research organizations under federal racketeering laws. This led to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement under which companies were ordered to pay states $200 billion through 2025 in restitution for overspending on Medicaid for tobacco-related illnesses. .

“We see that similar things continue until now. It’s great to have this kind of evidence.

“Our findings are a wake-up call for government officials charged with protecting public health, as well as public health advocates, to understand that the sugar industry, like the tobacco industry, seeks to protect profits. rather than public health,” Glantz said.

Related: Here’s How Sugar Could Fuel Cancer

The Sugar Association says it’s “difficult” to comment on documents its members haven’t seen.

“Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate, but a disservice that industry-funded research is seen as tainted. What is often missing from the dialogue is that industry-funded research has been instructive in addressing key issues,” he said in a statement.

What is clear is that too much added sugar and fat both play a role in heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to research not funded by industry groups.

“Since the late 1970s, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its predecessor, the Dietary Goals for the United States, have advised the public to consume less added sugar. Unfortunately, this advice has been drowned out by multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. dollars for sodas and other sugary drinks and foods,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement.

Rachel J. Bradford