How Big Sugar Enlisted Harvard Scientists to Influence How We Eat

In Mind & Body, Science & Technology
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The food industry has funded research in an effort to influence nutrition science and health policy for more than half a century, new research has found.

The industry actually funds similar research today. For example, the National Confectioners Association is working closely with Louisiana State University to find out why kids who are eating sugar are skinnier than kids who don’t eat sugar.

But the research didn’t begin there. In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation actually paid scientists at Harvard to discredit the fact that sugar actually increases the risks of cardiovascular disease. The industry actually turned the blame on to saturated fat instead.

Eventually in July of 1965, more research was brought out regarding the link to sugar. The director of the Sugar Research Foundation, John Hickson, then went to Harvard asking them to prove the findings of the research. Later in the summer, the chair of the nutrition department at Harvard began overseeing what was later known as Project 226. The SRF paid scientists to publish their research that was selected by Hickson that sugar was linked to coronary heart disease.

The review for publication then appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. In the review, it was said that there was “no doubt” that reducing cholesterol and saturated fat would help to prevent coronary heart disease, but surprisingly left out the connections to sugar.

In order to get around this, Harvard researchers found reasons in each study why the research was flawed. In one of the studies, it was said that the study shouldn’t be used because more sugar was used than what was normal in an American diet. They found any and every excuse they could to not publish the findings and completely ignored the consistencies.

“It is always appropriate to question the validity of individual studies,” the lead researcher for JAMA Internal medicine, Cristin Kearns, said. “However, the authors applied a different standard when they critiqued the studies linking sugar to CHD than they did to the studies implicating saturated fat and those indicating that polyunsaturated fats could prevent CHD. The authors did not critically evaluate those studies. In fact, the authors overstated the consistency and quality of those studies.”

Later on, Marion Nestle, also from JAMA Internal Medicine, called the research a “smoking gun” by showing how the people who fund the research influence it so greatly. Conveniently enough, in the review it wasn’t noted that the research was supported by either the SRF or the food industry.

Nestle later wrote, “For decades following the funded review, scientists and dietary guidelines focused on reducing saturated fat as the primary strategy for coronary heart disease prevention.”

To make matters worse, in 1980 the U.S. government posted the first dietary guidelines and focused solely on reducing total fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol in order to prevent coronary heart disease.

Both Neestle and Kearns fought for more independent research away from funded research, but Nestle said that this might not be as easy as it sounds. Nestle went on to say, “But people who do take industry funding are considered acceptable as long as they disclose their financial ties appropriately which, unfortunately, many do not.”