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Behind the sugar industry’s 50-year mission to axe its link to heart disease

Flickr user Andrei Niemimäki
The dark side of industry-funded research.
By Chase Purdy
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Trust no one.

That’s the takeaway of a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which claims the sugar industry in the 1960s launched a campaign in which it paid for nutrition research to downplay evidence linking America’s rising sugar consumption to heart disease. In doing so, the industry was able to deflect negative attention away from sugar on to fat and cholesterol, which by the 1980s were seen as the main contributors to cardiovascular disease.

It wasn’t until this year, in February, that the US government eased its position on cholesterol, illustrating just how powerful industry forces can be in shaping decades of federal policy and conventional wisdom about what we eat and whether it’s healthy.

The JAMA study is based off more than 320 documents unearthed primarily from the University of Illinois Archives by three researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

The plot was hatched in 1962, when industry stakeholders at a Sugar Research Foundation meeting opined about a new wave of medical studies tying sugar to heart disease, according to the study. Three years later, after a damning article was published in the New York Herald Tribune, the foundation decided to pull the trigger on what they called “Project 226”: they paid Harvard University researchers at least $48,900 (in 2016 dollars) total for a review article of several papers that had findings that might adversely impact sugar sales.

As the JAMA article noted, the chair of the Harvard department overseeing the review at the time was also invited to be a member of the Sugar Foundation’s board.

Project 226 produced a two-part review that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, which concluded that there was no doubt heart disease was tied not to sugar, but to cholesterol and fat. The review article, which did not disclose that the study was funded by the Sugar Research Foundation, would go on to have a long lasting impact on public health.

“The literature review helped shape not only public opinion on what causes heart problems but also the scientific community’s view of how to evaluate dietary risk factors for heart disease,” said Cristin Kearns, one of the JAMA article authors, in a statement.

Kearns and her two coauthors conclude that policy making committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies, which remain rampant today. As recently as August 2015, Coca-Cola was exposed for paying researchers to generate claims that physical activity can mitigate the impact of soda consumption. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle has even begun tallying such cases on her personal website.

Already the JAMA report has generated condemnation from corners of the public health community.

“We have to ask ourselves how many lives and dollars could have been saved, and how different today’s health picture would be, if the industry were not manipulating science in this way,” said Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America.

In response, The Sugar Association (formerly the Sugar Research Foundation) admitted in a statement that it should have “exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities,” but said funding and transparency in the 1960s were not like they are today. The group also bemoaned the article for “conveniently” aligning with currently trending anti-sugar narrative.

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