New report: How the sugar industry high-jacked the science of what causes heart disease

Researchers have unearthed long-buried documents that shed light on how, starting in the 1960s, the sugar industry co-opted nutrition science to shift blame for heart disease away from sugar to an exclusive focus on fat and cholesterol, according to a report published today in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The team of Stanton Glantz, Cristin Kearns and Laura Schmidt of the University of California, San Francisco discovered and analyzed archival documents that suggest the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), which later evolved into the Sugar Association, covertly sponsored research casting doubt on the health hazards of sugar. According to the UCSF report, SRF paid Harvard scientists $50,000 for a for 1967 literature review on coronary heart disease (CHD), published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that downplayed sugar consumption as a risk factor. 

SRF set the review’s objective, contributed articles to be included and received drafts – but never disclosed its role as funder.

“The literature review helped shape not only public opinion on what causes heart problems but also the scientific community’s view of how to evaluate dietary risk factors for heart disease,” said lead author Kearns, who discovered the industry documents.

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This latest report builds on the “sugar papers” released last year by the UCSF researchers that showed the major role the sugar industry played in undermining dental public health policies in the 1970’s by influencing officials at the National Institute of Dental Research.

The research the SRF funded on chronic diseases was “a main prop of the industry’s defense” against scientists like John Yudkin, who raised concerns about the health harms of sugar. It’s part of the industry’s longstanding efforts to discredit and deny sugar’s role in causing CHD, a strategy that the industry continues today. In a recent analysis of the sugar industry’s attempts to influence the World Health Organization’s 2015 guidelines for sugar intake, David Stuckler and his colleagues wrote:

“Many of the sugar industry’s arguments were characteristic of denialism, which is widely practiced by the tobacco and alcohol industries to thwart effective public health interventions. The overarching strategy was to promote doubt and, thereby, undermine the case for changing the status quo.”

As recently as last year, Coca-Cola was exposed paying researchers to make the claim that being physically active can mitigate the effects of excessive consumption of its products. We have to ask ourselves how many lives and dollars could have been saved, and how different today’s health picture would be, if the industry were not manipulating science in this way.

50 years after Yudkin and others suggested that added sugars are an important CHD risk factor, awareness of the health harms caused by sugar is finally gaining widespread acceptance. Yet industry continues to use its time-honored tactics of creating doubt about valid science it deems damaging to its bottom line and deflecting blame from its products. We are paying the price for the sugar industry’s manipulation with an epidemic of chronic disease. 

In order to right these wrongs, I fully concur with the recommendations from the UCSF researchers:

  • The health community should ensure that CHD risk is evaluated in future risk assessments of added sugars.
  • Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies.

As New York University nutrition expert Marion Nestle wrote in a related commentary on this research:

“May it serve as a warning not only to policymakers, but also to researchers, clinicians, peer reviewers, journal editors, and journalists of the need to consider the harm to scientific credibility and public health when dealing with studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results – and to find better ways to fund such studies and to prevent, disclose, and manage potentially conflicted interests.”

The type of manipulation uncovered by the UCSF researchers has contributed to the normalization of excessive exposure to added sugars. Today we are awash in added sugar. For the sake of our own and our kids’ health, we need to do something about it. Our sugar reduction toolkit is designed to help you learn about the actions you can take to knock sugar back to healthy levels. Join the movement at healthyfoodamerica.org.


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