Industry trade group shifted nutrition conversation from sugar to fat
- Researchers have uncovered reports that suggest the Sugar Association, formerly the Sugar Research Foundation, paid for studies that centered nutrition concerns around fat while downplaying sugar's role in certain diseases, according to two papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Internal Medicine.
- The researchers compared the industry group's tactic to what happened in the tobacco industry, which had an industry campaign to undermine research linking tobacco to cancer and heart disease.
- The sugar-industry-funded studies came from prominent Harvard nutrition researchers, including Mark Hegsted, who went on to be the head of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and helped write the forerunner to the government's dietary guidelines. They received today's equivalent of about $50,000 to publish a 1967 review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease, which the association hand-selected.
Industry-funded research has been a major topic recently, from Coca-Cola's funding of the Global Energy Balance Network to studies sponsored by the candy industry, as the Associated Press reported earlier this year. Because of perceived bias, public health advocates often deem industry-funded research to be skewed or unreliable, even when research methods and data analysis follow unbiased protocols.
But the gravity of this particular incident goes beyond a company-sponsored study that says one of the main ingredients in its product is healthy, like cranberry juice. In this case, the 1967 research review went on to influence official government dietary recommendations for decades to come. More recent research has only just begun to question many of those recommendations, particularly those concerning saturated fat and sugar.
It also gave rise to the former diet foods movement, which consisted of low-fat products often packed with sugar and carbohydrates. Some public health advocates believe that may have been a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic.
Proponents of industry-funded research believe that companies and trade associations can still play a critical role in progressing the food supply and public health initiatives. But opponents feel the bias is impossible to avoid or ignore and that such research should be publicly funded instead.
- JAMA Internal Medicine Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research
- NBC News Sugar Industry Manipulated Heart Studies, Review Finds
- The New York Times How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat
- Bloomberg How Big Sugar Enlisted Harvard Scientists to Influence How We Eat—in 1965