A scathing report in JAMA Internal Medicine provides compelling evidence that the sugar industry was more concerned with its bottom line than the health of Americans. Through the studies they funded and the researchers and experts they paid, the industry worked hard to shift the blame of heart disease to fats rather than sugars, despite evidence more than 50 years ago that sugar was contributing to heart disease. Some experts blame an increase in sugar consumption, as people tried to avoid fat, as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.
As far back as 1962, the Sugar Research Foundation, known today as the Sugar Association, became concerned with evidence showing that a diet high in sugar but low in fat could raise cholesterol, according to the JAMA article. Researchers were reporting that other components of the diet, aside from cholesterol, could be contributing to heart disease. In 1964, the head of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) proposed that the association launch a program to counter negative attitudes toward sugar, the article stated.
In 1967, The New England Journal of Medicine published a comprehensive review that was partly funded by the SRF. The SRF paid the equivalent of more than $48, 000 in today’s dollars to three professors, including former Harvard professor D. Mark Hegsted, professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and codirector of the SRF’s first CHD research project from 1965 to 1966. But the funding was not disclosed in the journal.
The article concluded that there was “no doubt” that the only dietary intervention required to prevent heart disease was to reduce dietary cholesterol and replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats. Documents suggest that sugar industry executives had a hand in editing and shaping the study. In one correspondence, the Harvard professor reassured the sugar industry executives who wanted to make sure that sugar was not found to be the culprit in heart disease. “We are well aware of your particular interest,” he wrote, “and will cover this as well as we can.”
According to the JAMA report, the 1967 review excluded numerous studies that showed links between sugar consumption and heart disease because of various flaws, and only included studies with cholesterol. In an accompanying editorial in JAMA, Marion Nestle , PhD, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics wrote, “To minimize the association with sugar, the authors seem to have cherry-picked existing data.”
According to the JAMA authors, by focusing on cholesterol, the authors “made the high sucrose content of the American diet seem less hazardous than if the entire body of evidence had been considered.”
The sugar industry continued to influence government policies. For example, in 1971, it influenced the National Institute of Dental Research’s National Caries Program to emphasize cavity prevention tactics such as brushing over reducing sugar.
This industry’s influence continues today and stretches beyond the Sugar Association. In 2015, The New York Times published an article revealing Coca-Cola’s influence on researchers who were conducting studies that minimized the effects of soda on obesity.
These efforts to suppress the harmful effects of sugar may have had disastrous effects. In the 1980s, people were encouraged to reduce fat intake. Yet many of these non-fat cookies and other products contained higher levels of sugar to make up for the lack of fat. By avoiding fats, people ate more carbohydrates and sugar. Some experts blame the obesity epidemic,1 as well as the increase in diabetes,2 on this shift in eating.