September 15, 2016
Don’t you love people that cling to scientific research without ever questioning who sponsored that research? Using archival documents, a new report published by JAMA Internal Medicine examines the sugar industry’s role in heart disease research. The study suggests that the sugar industry sponsored research to influence the scientific debate to cast doubt on the hazards of sugar and to promote dietary fat as the culprit in heart disease. Governments worldwide agreed just like they did with the tobacco industry and big pharma.
The sugar industry was instrumental in influencing the prevailing thinking about fat, obesity and related diseases holding that quantifying calories should be a principal concern and target for intervention.
Part of this thinking is that consumed calories — regardless of their sources — are equivalent; i.e. “a calorie is a calorie.” There needs to be a greater qualitative focus on the sources of calories consumed (i.e., a greater focus on types of foods) and on the metabolic changes that result from consuming foods of different types.
Calorie-focused thinking is inherently biased against high-fat foods, many of which may be protective against obesity and related diseases, and supportive of starchy and sugary replacements, which are likely detrimental.
The intake of dietary fructose increased significantly from 1970 to 2000. There has been a 25% increase in available “added sugars” during this period. The average person has a daily added sugar intake of 79 g (equivalent to 15% of energy intake), approximately half of which was fructose.
A report — authored by Cristin E. Kearns, Laura A. Schmidt, and Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco — examined internal documents from the Sugar Research Foundation (which later evolved into the Sugar Association). The Sugar Research Foundation started doing research on coronary heart disease research in 1965; its first project was a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. The review focused on fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of coronary heart disease, downplaying sugar consumption as a risk factor.
UCSF researchers have recently claimed sugar should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco to protect public health since it is fueling a global obesity pandemic, contributing to 35 million deaths annually worldwide from non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Like manufacturers from both Big Tobacco and Big Pharma who denied the presence of any danger in their products and even spent millions of dollars trying to discredit the research that points to problems, the Sugar Industry followed suit.
While the Sugar Research Foundation’s funding and role were not disclosed, internal documents reveal that the organization set the review’s objective, contributed articles to be included, and received drafts — a “smoking gun” linking the industry’s influence over the research it paid for, writes Marion Nestle in a related commentary, also published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“This 50-year-old incident may seem like ancient history, but it is quite relevant, not least because it answers some questions germane to our current era. Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues,” writes Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt.
“Industry-sponsored nutrition research, like that of research sponsored by the tobacco, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries, almost invariably produces results that confirm the benefits or lack of harm of the sponsor’s products, even when independently sponsored research comes to opposite conclusions,” Nestle adds.
Nestle says the report should serve as a warning to policymakers, researchers, clinicians, and journalists in carefully interpreting studies funded by food companies with vested interests in the results, and highlights the need to find better ways to fund studies and to prevent and disclose conflicts of interest.