Sugar industry paid scientists to play down role of sweet food in heart disease

Analysis of documents between sugar lobby and Harvard scientists described as 'smoking gun'

Harriet Agerholm
Tuesday 13 September 2016 16:22 BST
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The research misled people about the dangers of sugar consumption
The research misled people about the dangers of sugar consumption

The sugar industry sponsored research to downplay the role of sugar and promote fat as the key cause of heart disease, a report has revealed.

Researchers at the University of San Francisco made the discovery as part of a historical review of the sugar lobby's internal documents. They published their findings in the respected journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Early signs sugar plays a key role in heart disease emerged in the 1950s – a stance now widely accepted.

Yet, the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists during the 1950s and '60s to publish research saying fat was the key cause.

The research became a cornerstone of belief in the Western diet – with saturated fat and cholesterol identified as the biggest problems and people misled as to the dangers of sugar.

One influential project in 1965 funded by The Sugar Association, formerly the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), was a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The group paid the modern equivalent of £40,000 ($50,000) to the project, which argued cholesterol and not sucrose was the key factor in preventing heart disease.

University of San Francisco researchers found the SRF set the objective of the review, contributed articles for inclusion and received drafts of the paper. Neither the funding nor role the lobby played in the review was disclosed.

"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," lead author Cristin Kearns said in a statement.

Researchers from the UCSF analysed more than 340 correspondences between the sugar lobby and two scientists, Roger Adams and Mark Hegsted.

Last year it emerged the Sugar Research Foundation downplayed the role of sugar in tooth decay.

The powerful role of food companies in the outcomes of research has been uncovered recently by investigations into sweet companies and Coca-Cola.

In a commentary accompanying the JAMA Internal Medicine study, Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, who was not involved in the research project, called the findings a “smoking gun”, saying they demonstrated how those who fund research can affect its findings.

“They have produced compelling evidence that a sugar trade association not only paid for but also initiated and influenced research expressly to exonerate sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD)," she said.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chair of Action on Sugar, told The Independent: "This is exactly what we expect from the food industry. It doesn't surpirse me. Any industry will try to corrupt scientists,"

But he said obesity and Type-2 diabetes were more directly linked to sugar than heart disease.

The sugar lobby group, founded in 1943 by members of the American sugar industry, admitted it should have “exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities”.

But it added in a statement: “It is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago.”

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