The sugar industry funded research in the 1960s to downplay the connection between sugar and coronary heart disease, and to shift the blame to fats, according to an article published in medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The researchers discovered ties between the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) and Harvard researchers through an analysis of thousands of pages of correspondence and other internal documents found in archives at Harvard University.
In response to growing concerns about the negative health effects of sugar, John Hickson, the Sugar Research Foundation’s vice president and director of research, proposed an effort to combat negative attitudes towards sugar by funding research in a 1964 memo. In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard nutritionists Dr. Fredrick Stare and Mark Hegsted $6500, $49,657 in 2016 dollars according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to publish a review of research on sugar, fat, and coronary heart disease.
On June 23, 1965, Hickson provided Hegsted with at least five articles that negatively portrayed sugar. On July 30, 1965, Hickson wrote,
“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.”
This suggests the project did not aim for objective scientific truth, but had a specific conclusion in mind that would protect sugar. The review took longer than originally planned, as more research negatively depicting sugar kept being released, but was eventually published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. Though other sources of funding were disclosed, the funding and participation of the Sugar Research Foundation was not.
The review questioned the methodology and minimized the statistical significance of research linking sugar and heart disease. It concluded that the only dietary limitation needed to prevent heart disease was to reduce cholesterol and to substitute unsaturated fat for saturated fat. After seeing the final review, Hickson wrote, “let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print.”
This revelation is not the first discovery by the authors of the sugar industry’s role in shaping research. In a 2015 article, they found that the sugar industry influenced federal research priorities to downplay the link between sugar and tooth decay in a similar fashion as it did with coronary heart disease through analysis of an archive of correspondence and other documents from Roger Adams, a scientist who served on the Sugar Research Foundation Board, found in archives at the University of Illinois.
The Sugar Research Foundation’s 1950 annual report shows that the industry was aware of evidence linking sugar to tooth decay over sixty years ago. The SRF funded “Project 269” to determine alternative methods to limit dental cavities. Project 269 sought to develop enzymes, called dextranases, and a vaccine to combat Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria found in cavities that strongly contributes to tooth decay. SRF allocated $12,000, equivalent to about $85,000 today, between 1967 and 1970 for the project. Funding also came from chocolate and confectionery companies.
The National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) launched the National Caries Program in 1971 to determine ways to eradicate tooth decay. When giving recommendations to the NIDR, the Sugar Research Foundation downplayed the feasibility of restricting sugar consumption and promoted the research of dextranases and vaccines. The sugar industry was successful in its attempt to influence priorities, as the NIDR focused solely on sugar harm reduction and not sugar consumption reduction to combat tooth decay.
Misleading research such as this can have serious consequences. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death globally, and dental cavities are the leading chronic disease among children and adolescents. The sugar industry influenced research with their interests in mind, and did so without disclosures of transparency. Though the research on the role of fat versus sugar in heart disease is not entirely settled (and revelations about the sugar industry does not in turn mean that excess fat is not potentially dangerous as well), this highlights the need for conflicts of interest to be made clear in scientific research.
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