In the 1960s, a sugar industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation funded research that highlighted the dangers of fat and minimized the role of sugar in developing heart disease.
This behind-the-scenes manipulation was exposed in a 2016 article in JAMA Internal Medicine, written by Stanton Glantz, Cristin Kearns, and Laura Schmidt. The authors examined internal industry documents, as well as the process of the sponsored research conducted by Harvard scientists and published in the eminent New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, and came to the conclusion that the sugar industry abused the scientific process to inappropriately place the blame for heart disease on fat.
Issues with the Research
The scheming goes back to a 1954 speech by the president of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) who described a “great business opportunity” in persuading Americans to eat a low-fat diet. Consequently, the fat would be replaced by sugar.
But in the 1960s, several scientific studies began showing a connection between sugar and heart disease. It was a problem that “sugar is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other carbohydrates," as John Hickson, then-SRF vice president and director of research, wrote. So he recommended that the SRF fund their own research, so they could “publish the data and refute our detractors."
SRF funded their own research so they could “publish the data and refute our detractors."
The SRF funded a literature review — to the tune of about $50,000 in today’s money — for the research. And while there’s no evidence that SRF directly edited the final paper, their sponsored review concluded “there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar” and that “cutting fat out of American diets was the best way to address coronary heart disease.” In addition to this convenient conclusion, the monetary role of the SRF was not disclosed in the publication.
Furthermore, as the authors of the 2016 paper explain, the 1960s research was done in a very unscientific way. For starters, many of the articles reviewed were picked by the SRF. Other issues include how the review undermined published research that suggested sugar impacted heart disease, as well as claimed some of those studies were flawed or run incompetently.
The 1960s researchers also used different standards for different studies. Epidemiological studies of sugar eating habits were passed over as having too many factors to be accurate, yet they accepted epidemiological studies of fat consumption. They dismissed one study that showed the benefits of reducing sugar and increasing vegetables as “not feasible” for real people. Another rejected study was of rats given a low-fat and high-sugar diet because “such diets are rarely consumed by man."
Even though they ultimately had “few study characteristics and no quantitative results," as Kearns, Glantz and Schmidt describe it, the 1960s review concluded that cutting out fat was best for preventing heart disease.
The Issue with Special Interest Funded Research
The sugar industry funds research on the impact of sugar on health issues. It’s not all that surprising, so what’s the big deal? Well, according to Glantz, Kearns, and Schmidt, special interest funded research can actually be an “[attempt] to influence scientific inquiry and debate.”
"It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion," said Glantz.
Special interest funded research can actually be an attempt to influence scientific inquiry for money.
And if the general public is looking to science for guidance on healthy eating, then there’s potential for manipulated information being taken as truth — information that really just means more money in corporate pockets. And this kind of manipulated information is still happening.
Marion Nestle, also in JAMA Internal Medicine, writes: "Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor? Yes, it is, and the practice continues. In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola's cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not."
So what can we do? Glantz, Kearns, and Schmidt suggest that "Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food industry-funded studies.”
But the general public should also be aware that “science” can be used by special interest lobbies to publish “credible” information that shapes not only what we put in our bodies but where we spend our money — potentially without regard for what’s actually good for American citizens.