News & Politics

Sweet Lies: Big Sugar Paid to Shift Blame for Heart Disease to Fat

Newly released historical documents show that the sugar industry paid for research that would divert the cardiovascular effects of sugar consumption to current public enemy number one, fat.

The internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

“They were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C.S.F. and an author of the JAMA Internal Medicine paper.

Back in the ’60s, the sugar industry paid researchers at Harvard to perform a “literature review” on sugar, fat and heart disease.  The studies reviewed by the researchers were chosen by the sugar industry. The product of the literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and minimized the link between sugar and heart disease while pointing a finger at saturated fat. The professors were paid the equivalent of $50,000 to publish their “research.”

The Harvard scientists and the sugar executives with whom they collaborated are no longer alive. One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was D. Mark Hegsted, who went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines. Another was Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, the chairman of Harvard’s nutrition department.

The New York Times points out that when the original study was published, journals did not require disclosure of funding sources. A Sugar Association statement admitted they “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities.”

One major consequence of the study was that consumers and dieters adopted a low-fat diet that was high in sugar. How else can  you make low-fat food taste good? Add sugar! Now experts blame excessive sugar consumption for the obesity epidemic.

“It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion,” Glantz said.

Even today dietary guidelines counsel consumers to avoid fat.

The documents from 1964 reveal that John Hickson, a big sugar executive, discussed manipulating public opinion “through our research and information and legislative programs.”

At the time, studies had begun pointing to a relationship between high-sugar diets and the country’s high rates of heart disease. At the same time, other scientists, including the prominent Minnesota physiologist Ancel Keys, were investigating a competing theory that it was saturated fat and dietary cholesterol that posed the biggest risk for heart disease.

Mr. Hickson proposed countering the alarming findings on sugar with industry-funded research. “Then we can publish the data and refute our detractors,” he wrote.

One researcher, D. Mark. Hegsted, wrote:  “We are well aware of your particular interest and will cover this as well as we can.” The researchers also worked with industry honcho Hickson and he was pleased with their research propaganda.

“Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind, and we look forward to its appearance in print,” Mr. Hickson wrote.

The industry got what it wanted out of the study, “After the review was published, the debate about sugar and heart disease died down, while low-fat diets gained the endorsement of many health authorities, ” said Dr. Glantz.

There’s no telling how much damage this propaganda has affected the health of Americans.