New research reveals that the sugar industry funded studies in the early 1960s that downplayed sugar’s critical role in heart disease, while instead placing the blame on fats. This is the latest example of food and beverage makers attempting to shape public understanding of nutrition, with this recent revelation proving that a dangerous and erroneous cornerstone of 20th-century American nutrition was funded by the sugar industry in a self-serving attempt to bias heart disease research.
According to the new paper published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine by UC San Francisco researchers, an analysis of newly uncovered correspondences between a sugar trade group and Harvard researchers reveal that the sugar industry worked with scientists in the 1950s and 1960s to downplay sucrose’s role in causing coronary heart disease and other nutritional risks in efforts to increase people’s sucrose consumption. This coordinated tactic by the Sugar Research Foundation — now known as the Sugar Association — resulted in fat and cholesterol being singled out as the biggest problems in American diets and the main cause of heart disease, while leaving out the considerable role sugary foods play.
After analyzing more than 340 public archive documents, the UCSF researchers discovered that in 1964, the Sugar Research Foundation internally discussed a campaign to address “negative attitudes toward sugar” after studies began emerging linking sugar with heart disease. The following year the group approved “Project 226,” which entailed paying Harvard researchers the modern equivalent of $50,000 for a scientific article that argued cholesterol — not sucrose — was the sole relevant factor in studying and preventing coronary heart disease.
The resulting literature review was published in 1967, although the funding was not disclosed at the time. The article concluded there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat was the only dietary intervention needed to prevent heart disease. As such, this 1967 paper ended up playing a major role in making low-fat diets the nutritional norm in the U.S.
“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,” lead author Cristin Kearns said in a statement.
As the low-fat diet trend took hold of the U.S., the sugar industry thrived during the later half of the last century. Food makers began replacing fat with sugar — which is exactly what the industry had wanted. However, the research that condemned fat while ignoring the role of sugar is now widely seen as misguided and outdated. Although scientists are still working to understand links between diet and heart disease, concern has shifted in recent years to sugars, and away from fat.
While the UCSF paper studied the sugar industry’s influence on nutritional research in the 1950s and 60s, concerns that food makers still play an oversized role in scientific research remain today.
“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,” said Jim Krieger, executive director of Health Food America, in a comment after the paper was published earlier this week. “Only 50 years later are we waking up to the true harm from sugar. Yet industry continues to use its time-honored tactics of creating doubt about valid science they deem damaging to its bottom line and deflecting blame from their products.”
In response to the UCSF publication, the Sugar Association released a statement acknowledging that they “should have exercised more transparency in all of its research activities.” However, the group also went on the defense, arguing that “industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key issues,” while also questioning the the UCSF authors “continued attempts to reframe historical occurrences” in order to play into the current public sentiment against sugar.