For the past half century, the debate over the primary dietary causes of coronary heart disease (CHD) has consistently pointed the finger at saturated fats and cholesterol while largely ignoring the impact of America’s sweet tooth. Now we know why.
A study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that a sugar-industry trade group paid Harvard scientists conducting the initial research $6,500 (the equivalent of $48,900 in today’s dollars) to downplay sugar’s role and instead caution consumers to avoid saturated fats.
The paycheck came from the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), today known as the Sugar Association.
The Harvard study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. The SRF continued to fund research throughout the 1970s “that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fats as the dietary culprit in CHD,” according to the JAMA report.
Stanton Glantz, PhD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and his research team uncovered 1,582 pages of correspondence between the SRF and Harvard professors Roger Adams (who also served on the SRF’s scientific advisory board from 1959 to 1971) and D. Mark Hegsted, the professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health who codirected the SRF’s first CHD research project from 1965 to 1966. The correspondence was discovered amid the two scientists’ papers in the University of Illinois Archives and the Harvard Medical Library.
The documents described how SRF officials selected the studies they wanted Hegsted and his team to review. The Harvard scientists were more than happy to oblige. “We are well aware of your particular interest,” Hegsted wrote to SRF at one point, “and we will cover this as well as we can.”
The Harvard study helped shift the cardiovascular heart disease debate away from sugar; subsequent research focused solely on saturated fats and dietary cholesterol. Decades later, scientists are now showing how Americans’ aversion to healthy fats, combined with our sugar addiction, triggered the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Hegsted went on to become the Administrator of Human Nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He helped lay the groundwork for the federal government’s first set of dietary guidelines, published in 1977.
The SRF would subsequently spend $600,000 ($5.3 million in 2016 dollars) over the next several years to educate “people who had never had a course in biochemistry . . . that sugar is what keeps every human being alive and with energy to face our daily problems,” the JAMA study notes.
The Harvard professors — who included Fredrick J. Stare, MD, the chairman of the Harvard University School of Public Health Nutrition Department — are now deceased, as are the SRF executives behind the project.
In response to the JAMA study, the Sugar Association released the following statement: “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.”
When the initial SRF-backed studies were published, medical journals did not require scientists to disclose funding sources; The New England Journal of Medicine did not require financial disclosures until 1984.
According to reports in the New York Times, the food industry continues to influence nutrition advice. A 2015 Times article revealed that Coca-Cola had paid scientists millions of dollars to downplay the link between soda and obesity. In June 2016, an Associated Press report uncovered a study bankrolled by candy manufacturers that found children who eat candy weigh less than those who do not.