Back in the 1960s, a sugar industry executive wrote fat checks to a group of Harvard researchers so that they’d downplay the links between sugar and heart disease in a prominent medical journal—and the researchers did it, according to historical documents reported Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
One of those Harvard researchers went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where he set the stage for the federal government’s current dietary guidelines. All in all, the corrupted researchers and skewed scientific literature successfully helped draw attention away from the health risks of sweets and shift the blame solely to fats—for nearly five decades. The low-fat, high-sugar diets that health experts subsequently encouraged are now seen as a main driver of the current obesity epidemic.
The bitter revelations come from archived documents from the Sugar Research Foundation (now the Sugar Association), dug up by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. Their dive into the old, sour affair highlights both the perils of trusting industry-sponsored research to inform policy and the importance of requiring scientists to disclose conflicts of interest—something that didn’t become the norm until years later. Perhaps most strikingly, it spotlights the concerning power of the sugar industry.
“These findings, our analysis, and current Sugar Association criticisms of evidence linking sucrose to cardiovascular disease suggest the industry may have a long history of influencing federal policy,” the authors concluded.
In a statement also issued today, the Sugar Association acknowledged that it “should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities.” However, the trade-group went on to question the UCSF researchers’ motives in digging up the issue and reframing the past events to “conveniently align with the currently trending anti-sugar narrative.”