Sugar industry paid scientists for favorable research, documents reveal
The sugar industry began funding research that cast doubt on sugar’s role in heart disease – in part by pointing the finger at fat – as early as the 1960s, according to an analysis of newly discovered documents.
The analysis released Monday is based on correspondence between a sugar trade group and researchers at Harvard University, and is the latest example of how food and drink makers are trying to shape public understanding of the nutrition.
In 1964, the group now known as the Sugar Association discussed a campaign internally to combat ‘negative attitudes towards sugar’ after studies began to emerge linking sugar to heart disease, according to documents. excerpts from public archives. The following year, the group approved “Project 226”, which involved paying Harvard researchers the current equivalent of US$48,900 for a paper reviewing the scientific literature, providing the papers they wanted to review. and receiving drafts of the article.
The paper 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 overstated the consistency of the literature on fats and cholesterol, while downplaying the studies on sugar, according to the review.
“Let me assure you that this is what we had in mind and we are eagerly awaiting its publication in print,” an employee of the sugar group wrote to one of the authors.
Funding and the role of the sugar industry were not disclosed when the article was published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal did not begin requesting author disclosure until 1984.
“No appreciable relationship”
In an editorial published Monday that accompanied the sugar industry analysis, New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle noted that for decades after the study, scientists and health officials 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, concerns have shifted in recent years toward sugars and away from fats, Nestlé 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 Association cites a study published in 2014 that found too much added sugar may increase the risk of heart disease, although the authors of that study say the biological reasons for this link are not fully understood.
The findings released on Monday are part of an ongoing project by former dentist, Cristin Kearns, to uncover decades-long efforts by the sugar industry to counter the science linking sugar to negative health effects, including including diabetes.
The latest work, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is based primarily on 31 pages of correspondence between the sugar group and one of the Harvard researchers who authored the review.
In a statement, the Sugar Association said it “should have been more transparent in all of its research activities,” but that funding disclosures were not the norm when the review was published. The group also questioned Kearns’ “continued attempts to reframe historical events” to play on current public sentiment against sugar.
Thinly Veiled Marketing
The Sugar Association said it was a “disservice” that industry-funded research in general was seen as “tainted”.
Companies such as the Coca-Cola Co. and Kellogg Co., as well as agricultural commodity groups like beef and blueberries, routinely fund studies that become part of the scientific literature, are cited by other researchers, and touted in press releases.
Companies report adhering to scientific standards and many researchers believe industry funding is essential to advance science in the face of increasing competition for public funds. But critics say such studies are often thinly veiled marketing that undermines efforts to improve public health.
“Food company sponsorship, whether intentionally manipulative or not, undermines public confidence in the science of nutrition,” wrote Nestlé, a longtime critic of industry funding of science.
The authors of the analysis note that they were unable to interview the key players named in the documents because they are no longer alive. They also note that there is no direct evidence that the sugar industry changed 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 leaders of nutrition in shaping the heart disease discussion have not been studied.
“Public Health Extremists”
Still, they say the papers underscore why policymakers should consider giving less weight to industry-funded studies. Although funding disclosures are now standard practice in the scientific community, the role sponsors play behind the scenes is 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 Association, which touted the findings in a press release, provided comments to the authors on a draft, though a disclosure said it had no role in the paper. The association said its suggestions did not change the results.
In November, the AP also reported emails showing that Coca-Cola had been instrumental in founding a non-profit organization claiming its mission was to fight obesity, even though the group publicly stated that the soda maker had “no contribution” to its business. A document circulated to Coke said the group would oppose the “strident rhetoric” of “public health extremists”.
Coca-Cola later acknowledged that it had not been transparent, and the group subsequently disbanded.