Sugar industry paid scientists in the 60s to blame fat for heart disease

sugar research
CC BY 2.0 PiConsti/flickr

Newly discovered documents reveal that Harvard scientists were paid to downplay sugar’s harm and beef up the risk of saturated fat.

It’s no secret that research paid for by the industry that said research favors might best be viewed with a wary eye; but stunning new research from the University of California, San Francisco and published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows just how twisted industry-sponsored science can be. The incriminating new research is based on thousands of pages of correspondence and other documents in archives at Harvard, the University of Illinois and other libraries, found by investigator extraordinaire, Cristin E. Kearns, a postdoctoral fellow at U.C.S.F.

At a time when coronary heart disease was on the rise in the United States, researchers began pointing to high-sugar diets as a possible culprit. So the sugar industry trade group, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) (now known as the Sugar Association), did what any concerned and corrupt industry group would do, they bought their own science to shift blame away from their product.

The SRF’s vice president and director of research, John Hickson, proposed that the SRF “could embark on a major program” to counter “negative attitudes toward sugar.” According to the new paper:

He recommended an opinion poll “to learn what public concepts we should reinforce and what ones we need to combat through our research and information and legislative programs” and a symposium to “bring detractors before a board of their peers where their fallacies could be unveiled.” Finally, he recommended that SRF fund [Coronary Heart Disease] CHD research: “There seems to be a question as to whether the [atherogenic] effects are due to the carbohydrate or to other nutrient imbalance. We should carefully review the reports, probably with a committee of nutrition specialists; see what weak points there are in the experimentation, and replicate the studies with appropriate corrections. Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors.”

According to the documents, SRF paid three Harvard scientists $6500 ($48,900 in 2016 dollars) to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease. “The studies used in the review were handpicked by the sugar group, and the article, which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, minimized the link between sugar and heart health and cast aspersions on the role of saturated fat,” the New York Times reports. The new paper provides extensive quotes on how involved SRF was in steering the research and its conclusions.

All of the industry executives and Harvard scientists involved are no longer alive, but their influence persists. "The internal sugar industry documents suggest," writes The Times, "that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry."

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the new paper.

One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, notes the Times, who went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines.

For decades health officials have urged us to reduce our fat intake, which for many people meant an uptick in consuming the low-fat, high-sugar foods that many see as feeding the obesity problem in this country.

And while the new research does not exonerate fat altogether, it does add fuel to the fire that sugar may do harm beyond simply exacerbating tooth decay.

Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, says: “Given the data that we have today, we have shown the refined carbohydrates and especially sugar-sweetened beverages are risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but that the type of dietary fat is also very important.”

The Sugar Association said in response to the new paper:

We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today. Beyond this, it is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago, and on documents we have never seen.

Thankfully academic conflict-of-interest rules have changed since the 60s; and financial disclosures are the norm in research. But nonetheless, Willett says that this latest revelation is “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.” reports on the story in the video below:

The New York Times reports on it more in-depth here; the published paper can be read here.

Sugar industry paid scientists in the 60s to blame fat for heart disease
Newly discovered documents reveal that Harvard scientists were paid to downplay sugar’s harm and beef up the risk of saturated fat.

Related Content on