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Sugar Industry Paid Harvard Scientists to Shift Blame to Fat

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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