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Sugar Industry Paid Harvard Scientists to Shift Blame to Fat

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By Genna Reed

It might not shock you to know that the sugar industry doesn't have our best interests in mind. But would you be alarmed to find out that they consciously manipulated science in order to increase sugar consumption? And that they did so in the face of scientific evidence that sugar consumption was associated with chronic disease?

Next year will mark 50 years since the sugar industry initiated and funded a literature review absolving sugar of its association with chronic heart disease, without disclosing the industry's role in the study.

What we now know as the Sugar Association began as the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) in 1943. Researchers Cristin Kearns, Laura Schmidt and Stanton Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) combed through hundreds of SRF documents and found evidence that the sugar industry had manipulated the science to exonerate sugar as a dominant cause of heart disease—an action that shifted the direction of scientific research for decades.

One particularly jarring quote they found was from the president Henry Hass's 1954 speech to the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists in which he said, "if the carbohydrate industries were to recapture this 20 percent of the calories in the US diet (the difference between the 40 percent which fat has and the 20 percent which it ought to have) and if sugar maintained its present share of the carbohydrate market, this change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third with a tremendous improvement in general health."

The sugar industry was interested in increasing sugar consumption by funding science that would urge Americans to decrease calories from saturated fats and hopefully replace them with sugar.

The UCSF analysis reveals that SRF employed the following tactics the Union of Concerned Scientists previously identified in Added Sugar, Subtracted Science in order to undermine public health policy on sugar. Our work shows that SRF's successor the Sugar Association and its counterpart in the corn syrup industry, the Corn Refiners Association, took pointers from SRF:

Attacking the Science

Just as the Corn Refiners Association planned to "bury the data" when it was inconvenient, when the sugar industry got word that researchers like John Yudkin at Queen Elizabeth College were challenging the maxim that sugar calories were more desirable than fat calories, the SRF's vice president and director of research called on the organization in 1964 to "embark on a major program" to counter the science coming from Yudkin and others representing "negative attitudes toward sugar."

This program would include issuing a public opinion poll to find out what messages would resonate with consumers and decision makers, opening up a venue to publicly call out scientists for their undesirable results regarding sugar, and finally, pushing out studies funded by the sugar industry that look at the causes of chronic heart disease.

Spreading Misinformation

Similar to the sugar industry's recent misinforming in order to fight labeling policies, as a part of its campaign to increase sugar consumption in the 1960s, it began to fund its own literature review on sugars, fats, and chronic heart disease in an obvious attempt to dispel the rumors that calories from sugar were at least part of the problem. The SRF paid Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Robert McGandy, under the supervision of Harvard University's Fredrick Stare, a total of nearly $50,000 (in 2015 dollars) for their work. And the SRF was heavily involved throughout the review process, urging the scientists to focus on the perils of fat consumption.

The SRF vice president and director of research, John Hickson, emphasized in 1965, "Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation."

The study authors discounted research showing sugar's impact on chronic heart disease in a number of ways, focusing especially on possible bias within individual studies instead of looking at the consensus across studies. The conclusion of the literature review was that there was "no doubt" that the one way to prevent chronic heart disease was through a reduction of dietary cholesterol and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats. And the SRF was content with these findings, telling the lead authors, "this is quite what we had in mind."

Deploying Industry Scientists/Influencing Academia

Just as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association today work with academic scientists to advance their talking points, when the literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the authors did not disclose the funding or close involvement of the SRF in the review. Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founder and chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, had an extended history of funding from the sugar and food industry: over 30 papers authored by members of his department were funded by the SRF just between 1952 and 1956. Stare's department at Harvard is a key example of how industry funding can influence academic science, with dangerous consequences for public discourse and public policy.

Undermining Policy

The manipulation of science doesn't happen in a vacuum. Often, it serves to change the conversation and impact policy, as well. Similar to today's efforts by the sugar industry to undermine public health policies, in 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Sugars Task Force assessed the scientific evidence around sugar, leaning heavily upon the industry's 1976 review, titled "Sugar in the Diet of Man." The FDA report said that "no conclusive evidence on sugars demonstrates a hazard to the general public when sugars are consumed at the levels that are now current." The agency's study was influenced by industry sponsorship, as the chair of the study later went on to work at the Corn Refiners Association, a trade group that represents the interests of high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers.

This agency study, which had clear influence form the sugar and food industry, has been responsible for the determination of GRAS status for several added sugars, and has largely set the precedent for the resulting years of denial about the health impacts of sugar-laden diets.

The Sugar Industry's Role in Today's Chronic Disease Epidemic

It is no wonder that even today, our food policies are only just beginning to adequately address the association between added sugars and chronic disease. The sugar industry has magnificently managed to delay the inevitable knowledge about the dangers of excessive sugar consumption for a half century. And they are still employing this same behavior. Just last month, the American Heart Association released added sugar consumption guidelines for children, recommending that children under two consume no added sugars and that all other children consume less than 10 percent of calories from sugars, because "there is minimal room for nutrient-free calories in the habitual diets of very young children." The Sugar Association responded by accusing the American Heart Association of a lack of scientific integrity.

Luckily the tide is beginning to turn in spite of the industry's best efforts. FDA's label will soon include added sugars information on food packages. More and more local resolutions are popping up to place taxes on sugary beverages. School meal policies are adding variety and improving the nutritional quality of kids' diets. And exposés like this one are revealing the truth about how the food industry has manipulated science to influence our diets for the worse.

Still, the aforementioned research points to some interesting scientific integrity issues that remain today, including the rigor of conflict-of-interest policies at scientific journals and the ethical questions involved with the ability of decision makers to use industry-funded research to shape policies. My colleague, Gretchen Goldman, explains more about how we should be dealing with conflicts of interest in science funding here. We need greater transparency around the sugar industry's role in scientific studies, including funding but also identification of the nature of the relationship between the industry and the science. Independent science should inform policies that protect public health from the adverse impacts of added sugar.

Genna Reed is a science and policy analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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