Sugar industry manipulated research on health effects, study finds: NPR

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine describes the sugar industry’s efforts to manipulate research into the health effects of sugar in the 1960s. NPR’s Kelly McEvers talks with Cristin Kearns of the University of California, San Francisco about the study.



KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now let’s move on to a story about a secret deal decades ago that helped shape the way we think about food. This was revealed in a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. It is a journal affiliated with the American Medical Association. And the study is based on research by Cristin Kearns. She is a student at UC San Francisco and she is a dentist. And at a conference a few years ago, Kearns went to see a speaker talk about dentistry and diabetes.

CRISTIN KEARNS: And she distributed materials to dentists to use in counseling patients with diabetes. And it didn’t mention anything about restricting sugar intake to manage diabetes, which I found a little odd.

MCEVERS: So she started googling, and one thing led to another. And finally, in a library in Colorado, Kearns came across the archives of a sugar company that went out of business in the 1970s. In the very first file she opened, she found a confidential note from Sugar Association.

KEARNS: And what happened to me was the public relations campaign that the industry launched to influence the Food and Drug Administration’s review of the safety of sucrose in 1976.

MCEVERS: And she found more than that. By the mid-20th century, scientists had begun to wonder if sugar was linked to heart disease. And that didn’t sit well with the sugar industry, so, according to Kearns, the Sugar Association paid the equivalent of $50,000 to three Harvard scientists to review the existing research.

KEARNS: The 1960s were really pivotal for the diet and heart disease debate. There were really two sides to the story. On the one hand, the evidence linked sugar to heart disease, while on the other hand, the evidence linked saturated fat to heart disease. Some people said both were a problem. The sugar industry seized this opportunity early on to recruit these Harvard scientists and write a very influential review published in the New England Journal of Medicine that criticized the evidence linking sucrose to coronary heart disease that served to steer us away from this path.

MCEVERS: Right. And so attention turned to fat and away from sugar.

KEARNS: That’s right.

MCEVERS: And we should say that the Sugar Association responded to your survey. He says this 1967 review was published at a time when medical journals generally did not require researchers to disclose their sources of funding. They also say the industry should have been more transparent in all of its research activities. Do you think that’s an adequate answer?

KEARNS: Well, yeah, I think it’s true that they absolutely should have been more transparent. But I think there’s a lot more going on there. It was just a study. This was the first study from the sugar industry’s heart disease research program. I believe they had funded a considerable amount more related to this debate, and so I think there is more to learn about their influence.

MCEVERS: You know, your research, what – your findings are really reminiscent of similar stories about the tobacco industry or the oil industry trying to influence research. Are there any connections there?

KEARNS: Interestingly, when I started, I found out that the scientific director of the Sugar Research Foundation, which started in 1943, actually worked for the tobacco industry in 1954, for the Committee tobacco industry research. So the tobacco industry might have learned from the sugar industry.

MCEVERS: Wow. So what to do to prevent this from happening again?

KEARNS: Well, it’s certainly very important to have strong conflict of interest policies in our scientific journals, as well as reviewing industry interactions with their expert advisory boards, making sure that that industry-sponsored studies are not considered in this body of evidence when experts draw conclusions about dietary guidelines, but they also report the information to the public to critique industry-sponsored studies they hear about in the media.

MCEVERS: Cristin Kearns, thank you very much.

KEARNS: Thank you for inviting me.

MCEVERS: Cristin Kearns is a dentist and fellow at the University of California, San Francisco. His study of the influence of the sugar industry on research in the 1960s was published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit the Terms of Use and Permissions pages of our website at www.npr.org for more information.

NPR transcripts are created on short notice by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.

Rachel J. Bradford