A newly discovered cache of internal documents reveals that
the sugar industry downplayed the risks of sugar in the 1960s.
In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the
risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat, according to a
newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The article draws on internal documents to show that an industry
group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to "refute" concerns
about sugar's possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored
research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was
published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967,
with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.
The sugar-funded project in question was a literature review,
examining a variety of studies and experiments. It suggested there
were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar, and
concluded that cutting fat out of American diets was the best way to
address coronary heart disease.
The authors of the new article say that for the past five decades,
the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific
debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.
"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," co-author
Stanton Glantz told
The New York Times.
Money on the line
In the article, published Monday, authors Glantz, Cristin Kearns and
Laura Schmidt aren't trying make the case for a link between sugar and
coronary heart disease. Their interest is in the process. They say the
documents reveal the sugar industry attempting to influence scientific
inquiry and debate.
The researchers note that they worked under some limitations — "We
could not interview key actors involved in this historical episode
because they have died," they write. Other organizations were also
advocating concerns about fat, they note.
There's no evidence that the SRF directly edited the manuscript
published by the Harvard scientists in 1967, but there is
"circumstantial" evidence that the interests of the sugar lobby shaped
the conclusions of the review, the researchers say.
For one thing, there's motivation and intent. In 1954, the
researchers note, the president of the SRF gave a speech describing a
great business opportunity.
If Americans could be persuaded to eat a lower-fat diet — for the
sake of their health — they would need to replace that fat with
something else. America's per capita sugar consumption could go up by
But in the '60s, the SRF became aware of "flowing reports that sugar
is a less desirable dietary source of calories than other
carbohydrates," as John Hickson, SRF vice president and director of
research, put it in one document.
He recommended that the industry fund its own studies — "Then we can
publish the data and refute our detractors."
The next year, after several scientific articles were published
suggesting a link between sucrose and coronary heart disease, the SRF
approved the literature-review project. It wound up paying
approximately $50,000 in today's dollars for the research.
One of the researchers was the chairman of Harvard's Public Health
Nutrition Department — and an ad hoc member of SRF's board.
"A different standard" for different studies
Glantz, Kearns and Schmidt say many of the articles examined in the
review were hand-selected by SRF, and it was implied that the sugar
industry would expect them to be critiqued.
In a letter, SRF's Hickson said that the organization's "particular
interest" was in evaluating studies focused on "carbohydrates in the
form of sucrose."
"We are well aware," one of the scientists replied, "and will cover
this as well as we can."
The project wound up taking longer than expected, because more and
more studies were being released that suggested sugar might be linked
to coronary heart disease. But it was finally published in 1967.
Hickson was certainly happy with the result: "Let me assure you this
is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in
print," he told one of the scientists.
The review minimized
the significance of research that suggested sugar could play a
role in coronary heart disease. In some cases the scientists alleged
investigator incompetence or flawed methodology.
"It is always appropriate to question the validity of individual
studies," Kearns told
Bloomberg via email. But, she says, "the authors applied a
different standard" to different studies — looking very critically at
research that implicated sugar, and ignoring problems with studies
that found dangers in fat.
Epidemiological studies of sugar consumption — which look at patterns
of health and disease in the real world — were dismissed for having
too many possible factors getting in the way. Experimental studies
were dismissed for being too dissimilar to real life.
One study that found a health benefit when people ate less sugar and
more vegetables was dismissed because that dietary change was not
Another study, in which rats were given a diet low in fat and high in
sugar, was rejected because "such diets are rarely consumed by man."
The Harvard researchers then turned to studies that examined risks of
fat — which included the same kind of epidemiological studies they had
dismissed when it came to sugar.
Citing "few study characteristics and no quantitative results," as
Kearns, Glantz and Schmidt put it, they concluded that cutting out fat
was "no doubt" the best dietary intervention to prevent coronary heart
Sugar lobby: "Transparency standards were not the norm"
In a statement, the Sugar Association — which evolved out of the SRF
— said it is challenging to comment on events from so long ago.
"We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have
exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities,
however, when the studies in question were published funding
disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are
today," the association said.
"Generally speaking, it is not only unfortunate but a disservice that
industry-funded research is branded as tainted," the statement
continues. "What is often missing from the dialogue is that
industry-funded research has been informative in addressing key
The documents in question are five decades old, but the larger issue
is of the moment, as Marion Nestle notes
in a commentary in the same issue of JAMA Internal
As for the article authors who dug into the documents around this
funding, they offer two suggestions for the future.
"Policymaking committees should consider giving less weight to food
industry-funded studies," they write.
They also call for new research into any ties between added sugars
and coronary heart disease.