Big Sugar’s Big Ploy

Back in the 1960s, an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) sought to squelch concerns some studies had raised about sugar’s possible role in heart disease. And so the group sponsored research by Harvard scientists to do just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.

That is the finding of the Journal of American Medical Association publication JAMA Internal Medicine, whose current issue includes a paper that draws on a trove of newly discovered internal industry documents.

The SRF, those documents show, became aware of “flowing reports that sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates,” as John Hickson, the SRF’s vice president and director of research, put it.

He recommended that the industry fund its own studies. “Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors,” he wrote. And so it happened.

The “Big Sugar”-funded project in question paid the equivalent of what would today be approximately $50,000 for research that yielded papers suggesting there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar. The project papers concluded that, when it came to coronary heart disease, fat was the culprit. That became the reigning nutritional narrative, and it has, to a large degree, persisted until today.

One of the researchers was Dr. Frederick J. Stare, who later became the chairman of Harvard’s Public Health Nutrition Department. Another was Dr. Mark Hegsted, who was the head of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dr. Hegsted was instrumental in creating the federal government’s first dietary guidelines in 1977.

SRF Vice President John Hickson repeatedly interacted with the researchers while they worked on the review, providing them with articles, receiving drafts and reminding them of the SRF’s objective for funding the study. In one document, Dr. Hegsted replied that “We are well aware of your particular interest in carbohydrate and will cover this as well as we can.”

And he made good on his promise. The scientists dismissed the epidemiological studies of sugar consumption that found a health benefit when people ate less sugar and more vegetables, and emphasized other studies implicating saturated fats as the main risk factor for heart disease, concluding that cutting out fat was “no doubt” the best dietary intervention to prevent coronary heart disease.

Mr. Hickson, after receiving a final draft of the literature review produced by the researchers, wrote back to the doctor: “Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print.”

Although the documents in question are five decades old, their impact persists. The sugar industry continues to promote its product as, if not healthful, at least not unhealthy. And only last year, it was revealed that Coca-Cola sponsored researchers who conducted studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity, and paid $100 million dollars to promote and publicize such research.

More recently still, a candy trade association was reported to have funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not. Any children aware of that research were surely impressed; their parents, though, likely, and wisely, less so.

Still and all, most of us remained more concerned about dietary fat than about sugar intake. And, even leaving sugary drinks and candy aside, sugar is added to countless foods we consume without considering their health impacts.

A major result of Big Sugar’s efforts was the proliferation of low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets that are still popular, but which many researchers argue has helped fuel the current obesity boom.

According to Laura Schmidt, PhD, of the UCSF-led “SugarScience” initiative, “There is now a considerable body of evidence linking added sugars to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Yet, health policy documents are still inconsistent in citing heart disease risk as a health consequence of added sugars consumption.”

There are two lessons here. First is the need to take all studies — especially those funded by industries rather than by public sources — with a grain of salt (proverbially speaking, that is; excessive consumption of salt carries risks of its own).

The second, in keeping with the halachic imperative to care for our health, is to make careful decisions about the type of foods we consume. There still is no clear scientific consensus about whether excess sugar or excess saturated fat is the larger threat to our wellbeing. But there is broad agreement that, for healthful living, both are best avoided.