The Sugar Industry Paid Scientists to Vilify Fat

© Kristin Duvall / Getty Images

By Danica Lo Posted September 13, 2016

In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded Harvard research that shaped the nutritional policy of our country for decades to come.

Anyone who grew up in the '70s will remember Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution—the first book ever published by the now-famous more-protein-fewer-carbs advocate. But fast forward ten years and, by the mid-'80s, pop consciousness had flipped weight loss theory on its head—and instead of eschewing carbs and sugar, slimmers were convinced to curb their fat and protein intakes in favor of platefuls of rice, carbs, potatoes, and other "fat free" all-carb diets. This was no accident.

According to a recent report by Anahad O'Connor in the New York Times, newly released records show that this mindset shift in public health had it roots in the 1960s, when the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group, paid off three Harvard scientists to publish a research review that featured studies that "were handpicked by the sugar group." This one act was "able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades," UCSF Professor of Medicine Stanton Glantz told the paper. And, while those scientists are no longer alive, their impact was far-reaching. "One of the scientists who was paid by the sugar industry was Dr. 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," O'Connor writes. "Another was Dr. Fredrick J. Stare, the chairman of Harvard's nutrition department."

In fact, we still see the repercussions of this research today—50 years on. When Dr. Hegsted parlayed his research into government-issued nutritional guidelines, saturated fat was singled out as the culprit in cases of heart disease, something that's still commonly accepted, though research suggests that added sugar also plays a significant role.

In the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), NYU Professor of Nutrition wrote an editorial excoriating the practice of industry-sponsored research that is improperly disclosed: "May it serve as a warning not only to policymakers, but also to researchers, clinicians, peer reviewers, journal editors, and journalists of the need to consider the harm to scientific credibility and public health when dealing with studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results—and to find better ways to fund such studies and to prevent, disclose, and manage potentially conflicted interests."

 

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