16 Sep 2016

How the sugar industry downplayed links to heart disease

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:14 pm on 16 September 2016

Newly released documents reveal that in the 1960s the US sugar industry paid scientists to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease and instead promote saturated fat as the culprit.

The internal sugar industry documents were discovered by a researcher at the UC San Francisco, Cristin Kearns.

Details from the papers have been published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The documents cast doubt on 50 years of US nutritional and dietary advice and show the insidious influence of the sugar on an influential Harvard study.

Kearns says she came upon the documents while looking into why advice about diabetes seemed to avoid mentioning a link with sugar. 

“I went to a conference looking at the links between diabetes and gum disease all the way back in 2007 when I heard from some of our national leaders talking about dietary advice for diabetics. No-one was talking about reducing sugar consumption and I found that to be very unusual.”

Cristin Kearns

Cristin Kearns Photo: Supplied

She decided to delve deeper and stumbled on archives from a sugar company that went out of business in the 1970s. That company had donated its records to local libraries.

Those documents revealed the PR tactics of the Sugar Research Foundation, including its influence on the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) review of the safety of sucrose and also how the sugar industry sought to influence thinking on tooth decay.

"The US national tooth decay research programme got launched in 1971 and they [Sugar Research Foundation] are able to contribute to influencing research programmes to shift our attention away from researching sugar and instead look at things.”

Some of those suggested side alleys were developing a vaccine for tooth decay or finding an enzyme to add to toothpaste to break up plaque on the teeth.

“And of course we know how those things panned out”, says Kearns.

In the latest find she discovered correspondence kept at Harvard University between Harvard nutrition scientists and the sugar industry back in the 1960s.

At the time evidence was emerging linking sucrose to coronary heart disease, the media was picking up on it and the sugar industry was jittery.

“So they turned to these Harvard researchers to help them shift public opinion.”

The industry paid three Harvard scientists the equivalent of about US$50,000 in today's dollars to publish a 1967 review of sugar, fat and heart research.

The studies used in the review were hand-picked by the sugar group, and the article was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)

“The industry set the objectives of the review, they sent the Harvard researchers articles they wanted them to critique that would make sugar look better.”

A subsequent article in the NEJM in 1967 didn’t disclose any sugar industry funding.

“The authors of the review have died so we can’t ask them about their direct role, but they were very influential figures in the dietary debates in the US in the '50s and '60s and '70s.”

Two of the authors, Hegsted and Stare, went on to advise groups like the American Heart Association and help shape national dietary advice.

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