Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have uncovered decades-old organized effort by the sugar industry to exonerate sugar as a dietary culprit for heart disease and shift the blame onto fat and cholesterol.
The team, led by dentist-turned-researcher Dr. Cristin Kearns, recently published a shocking article in JAMA Internal Medicine. In the article they reveal that the sugar industry’s main trade group paid two Harvard scientists to conduct a literature review in the mid-1960s that challenged emerging evidence linking sugar consumption to risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Reporting on the UCSF findings Anahad O’Conner in the New York Times, (How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat, Sept. 12, 2016) outlines that the documents that were found while digging through boxes of letters in the basement of a Harvard library and show that a trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about $50,000 in today’s dollars to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. All the studies used in the reviews, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, were initiated and paid for by the sugar industry trade group who was then, in turn, allowed to examine drafts, and lay out a clear objective to protect sugar’s reputation in the public eye.
Equally disturbing was the revelation that one of the Harvard scientists involved in the review, Dr. Mark Hegsted, went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture and draft the 1977 predecessor to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Another Harvard scientist Dr. Fredrick J. Stare was the chairman of the Harvard’s highly respected nutrition department. Neither man ever disclosed that their relationships with the Sugar Research Foundation.
The research done at Harvard, and the JAMA reviews went on to influence the government’s dietary recommendations, which emphasized saturated fat as a driver of heart disease while largely characterizing sugar as empty calories linked to tooth decay.
In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, and drawing heavily from the 1977 draft done by Harvard’s Dr. Hegsted, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people, and changed the way our country ate. Doctors base their advice on the guidelines; food companies develop products to comply with them. The most prominent recommendation was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol and it was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything. Steak and sausage was replaced with pasta and rice, butter with margarine and vegetable oils, eggs with cereal, and milk with low-fat milk or orange juice.
The 1980 guidelines emphasis on reducing fat and cholesterol was directly rooted in the work done in the 1950s by the Sugar Research Foundation. They had identified a strategic opening to increase sugar’s market share by getting Americans to eat a low-fat diet. A 1954 speech given by the trade group’s president focused on research that blamed fat and cholesterol yet ignored research that sugar also played a role in causing high blood pressure and heart problems.
And there was existing research sounding the alarm on sugar. British scientist and professor of nutrition John Yudkin had begun researching sugars dietary effects in the early 1950’s. In looking at data on heart disease he had been struck with its correlation to the consumption of sugar, not fat. In a series of laboratory experiments on animals and humans he observed, as others had before him, that sugar is processed in the liver, where it turns to fat, before entering the bloodstream. Yudkin’s research culminated in the publishing of his 1972 book, Pure, White, and Deadly, which laid out bare the dangers of sugar consumption.
For his exemplary research and efforts, Yudkin was excoriated by industry groups like the Sugar Research Foundation and The British Sugar Bureau. The World Sugar Research Organization even went so far as to call his book “science fiction.” The sugar trade groups mounted a concerted and organized effort to discredit Yudkin and any other scientist who tried to link sugar with poor health outcomes or obesity. Secretly they began funding research, like the JAMA reviews from Harvard that highlighted the dangers of saturated fat and cholesterol and discounted sugar’s role in heart disease. In the end their fingerprints were all over the 1980 dietary guidelines. And because of that we are now in the midst of a national health crisis.
If you look at a graph of postwar obesity rates it becomes clear that there was a dramatic change after 1980. There is only a gradual postwar rise until, in the early 1980s it began to skyrocket. In 1950 Just 12% of Americans were obese, in 1980 it was 15%. By 2000 the obesity rate hat jumped to 35%. The rise in type II diabetes also closely parallels the rise in obesity.
Mirroring all of this is the acceptance of sugar as a dietary staple and the correlating increase in per capita sugar consumption. Today the average American consumes approximately 100 lbs. of sugar each year.
All of this – the rise in obesity, the rise in heart disease, the rise in diabetes – can be directly linked to the sugar industries influence redefining the American diet and their promotion of low-fat, low-cholesterol dietary guidelines that ignored the role of sugar in causing heart disease.
The link between Sugar industry trade groups and researchers is not new, or surprising. It is symptomatic of how not only sugar, but also others like tobacco and the drug industry have attempted to alter scientific research, to help grow their market and shield them from potential liability when they knowingly sell dangerous products.
I know personally from depositions I have taken over the years that I expert witness authors of medical journals and researchers will often fail to disclose conflicts where they have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from corporate interests. Disclosure requirements are toothless and industry takes advantage of lax enforcement all the time. There appear to be no penalties for failure to disclose even now when required. Corporations that put profits above public health and safety corrupt our public health database of knowledge to a significant degree.
A growing number of new studies suggest a link between sugar consumption and heart disease and back up John Yudkin’s early research on sugar consumption in the 1950’s. The only way we can truly begin to fight the obesity epidemic in this country is to limit the power of corporations to meddle in science in way that really impacts whole populations and their behaviors. Make no mistake about it, we are in the midst of a national health crisis that the sugar industry must share the blame for. We must not let it happen again.