Secret campaign successfully blamed saturated animal fats and hid sugar’s far greater guilt
Newly disclosed scientific misconduct may have harmed millions and wasted billions.
A dentist/researcher at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found the damning documents in archives at Harvard and other libraries.
The lead author of the resulting paper — Cristin Kearns, DDS, MBA — is a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF.
Once-secret documents show that the sugar industry began working closely with nutrition scientists in the mid-1960s.
Kearns and her UCSF colleagues analyzed more than 340 documents, containing 1,582 pages, sent between the sugar industry and scientists.
They found that the sugar industry funded Harvard studies it hoped would blame dietary cholesterol and saturated fat for coronary heart disease.
In an equally evil move, they essentially paid Harvard scientists to downplay growing evidence that America's sugar habit posed an equal or greater risk to cardiovascular health.
Motive of the deception: Shift blame and sell more sugar
By 1954, the sugar industry's leading trade organization came to a profitable conclusion.
It estimated that if Americans adopted low-fat diets, their consumption of cane sugar (sucrose) would likely rise by more than one-third.
That rise in sugar intake would result as people tried to compensate for reductions in the fat content of their diets by adding sugar, or picking products with added sugars.
In 1965, evidence of the heart risks of sucrose began to draw media attention.
Specifically, new evidence was linking dietary sugar to high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels had begun to emerge.
The hypothesis that dietary cholesterol and saturated fats cause heart disease has since been discredited, although it persists in obsolete guidance from private and public health authorities.
See “Recent review exonerates saturated fat, highlights sugars' harm to hearts”, below.
Sugar-funded studies swayed medical and public opinion
In response to emerging negative evidence concerning sugar, the industry commissioned “Project 226” … a review of the scientific literature by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health's Nutrition Department.
The Harvard team's 1967 evidence review was widely accepted by doctors, thanks to the combined prestige of Harvard and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
Harvard scientists concluded there was “no doubt” that the only dietary intervention required to prevent coronary heart disease was to reduce dietary cholesterol and substitute polyunsaturated fat (from cheap vegetable oils) for saturated fat (from meats and dairy foods).
“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,” said Dr. Kearns, who discovered the industry documents.
Details of the disturbing discovery
The sugar industry paid Dr. Hegsted and other Harvard scientists the equivalent of $50,000 in today's dollars to conduct the literature review.
Worse, the sugar industry also set the review's objective, contributed articles to be included, and received drafts.
However, in line with common practice at the time, the industry's funding and role were not disclosed in the final NEJM publication.
The literature review heavily criticized studies linking added sucrose — mostly from cane sugar — to heart disease, while ignoring the flaws and limitations of studies that indicted dietary fats.
The Harvard scientists' evidence review argued that cholesterol levels were the only significant risk factor for coronary heart disease.
That erroneous conclusion made the high sugar content of the 1960s-era American diet — mostly sucrose from cane sugar — seem less hazardous than if blood triglycerides were also considered to be a risk factor.
Recent review exonerates saturated fat, highlights sugars' harm
Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, is a very well regarded institution.
Earlier this year, researchers at Saint Luke's ratified the recent reversals of scientific opinion with regard to the effects of sugars and saturated fats on heart disease risk (DiNicolantonio JJ et al. 2016).
It's well worth quoting from their rebuttal to conventional claims about saturated fats (SFAs) and coronary heart disease (CHD):
- “Dietary guidelines continue to recommend restricting intake of saturated fats … [because some kinds] … can raise levels of total serum cholesterol (TC) … [but] TC is only modestly associated with CHD ...”
- “As for saturated fats, these fats are a diverse class of compounds; different fats may have different effects on LDL [cholesterol] and on broader CHD risk ... Some food sources of SFAs may pose no risk for CHD or possibly even be protective.”
- “Advice to reduce saturated fat in the diet without regard to nuances about LDL, SFAs, or dietary sources could actually increase people's risk of CHD.”
- “When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, and specifically with added sugars (like sucrose or high fructose corn syrup), the end result is not favorable for heart health.”
Need for more transparency in science
The authors of the explosive UCSF paper stressed the unreliability of studies by scientists with conflicts of interest, and the need for financial disclosure.
“As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune,” said senior author Stanton A. Glantz, Ph.D. “There are all kinds of ways that you can subtly manipulate the outcome of a study, which industry is very well practiced at.”
Co-author Laura Schmidt, Ph.D., noted that — after decades of calling saturated fat the chief dietary culprit in heart disease — the science blaming sugar continues to grow, but health policy has only just begun to catch up.
As she said, “There is now a considerable body of evidence linking added sugars to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 cause of premature death in the developed world. Yet, health policy documents are still inconsistent in citing heart disease risk as a health consequence of added sugars consumption.”
Last year, The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola gave millions of dollars to researchers whose subsequent scientific papers played down the link between sugary drinks and obesity.
Likewise, The Associated Press reported last June that candy makers have been funding studies purporting to show that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than other children.
The new UCSF study was funded by the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies; a donation by the Hellmann Family Fund; the UCSF School of Dentistry; and grants from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the National Cancer Institute.
- DiNicolantonio JJ, Lucan SC, O'Keefe JH. The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2016 Mar-Apr;58(5):464-72. doi: 10.1016/j.pcad.2015.11.006. Epub 2015 Nov 14. Review.
- Kearns CE, Glantz SA, Schmidt LA. Sugar industry influence on the scientific agenda of the National Institute of Dental Research's 1971 National Caries Program: a historical analysis of internal documents. PLoS Med. 2015 Mar 10;12(3):e1001798. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001798. eCollection 2015 Mar.
- Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Sep 12. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394. [Epub ahead of print]