In an article published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, the researchers suggested that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid scientists to hide the relationship between sugar and heart disease, making the course of science and technology fail. nutrition policy in the coming years. Now, two researchers at Columbia University say those claims are not backed by historical evidence and, by promoting the idea of a "sugar conspiracy," hamper our understanding of how science really does.
In 2016, after reviewing the internal documents of the industry, researchers from the University of California showed that a commercial group called the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) paid Harvard scientists to review what the literature said about the role of fat and sugar in heart disease. The review, published in 1967 in a prestigious journal, played down the role of sugar, blaming saturated fats instead. Last year, the same UCSF group published another document stating that in the 1960s, the SRF also stopped funding research that began to show that rats with a high-sugar diet had high triglyceride levels, which increased the risk of heart disease. "They were able to derail the sugar discussion for decades," said one of the UCSF researchers, Stanton Glantz, to The New York Times.
"It does not capture the whole image."
Those findings, however, exaggerate the evidence, according to an article published last week in Science. "We do not claim that the sugar industry had no influence on nutrition work at Harvard, nor in the field in general," says the article. "But we believe there is no good reason to conclude that SRF's sponsorship of a literature review significantly shaped the course of dietary science and policy." In addition, several other industry groups, such as the meat and dairy industry, also funded research at the time. "To summarize it to the sugar industry, in our opinion, it does not capture the whole picture," says David Merritt Johns, a doctoral candidate in the Columbia Department of Sociomedical Sciences, and one of the authors of Science. Article.
Today, we know that eating many added sugars, for example in soft drinks, as well as some types of fats, such as trans fats, can increase the risk of heart disease or diabetes. But in the years after World War II, when obesity and heart disease were already beginning to affect Americans, the evidence was not clear. In the 1960s, fat had emerged as a plausible culprit, and some researchers were also investigating sugar. At that time, it was normal for the food industry to fund research, and magazines did not require researchers to reveal where their money came from, Johns tells The Verge.
"Hegsted and his colleagues applied a double standard to their criticism."
That said, Johns says that Hegsted had "a reputation as a very scrupulous guy," and that he had done other studies that had results that did not align with his funders, such as the North American Meat Institute. "Under the Reagan administration, Hegsted would be fired from his job developing the first dietary guidelines in the US After his low-fat approach sparked the ire of the meat industry," says the Science article. And in 1977, Dietary Goals for the United States, which was edited mainly by Hegsted, also recommended reducing the intake of sugar by 40 percent due to its relationship with dental caries and possibly diabetes.
The focus on dietary fats came to influence the guidelines in the coming years. In the 1980s and 1990s, Americans were encouraged to eat less fatty foods. As a result, all types of fats, good and bad, were reduced, while sugar intake went up, says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Some believe that was the spark of the obesity epidemic that affects the US. UU At this time, says The New York Times. More than 30 percent of American adults are obese; and obesity costs the US UU an estimated $ 147 billion a year, according to the CDC. "That drive was, unfortunately, more the result of well-meaning people who did not pay attention to the data," Willett told The Verge. "That was not really driven by the sugar industry primarily."
Johns agrees: "The twists and turns in science and politics are not always the product of malevolent forces," he says. Still, the UCSF researchers do not agree with that take. "Our focus is not on motivations (unobservables) or the ethics of specific individuals," Kearns writes in an email to The Verge. "Our goal is to understand the impact of the research program of the sugar industry, which covers more than 50 years."
One thing is clear: the food industry continues to fund research today, with disastrous consequences. In 2015, The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had paid scientists to distract the public from the connection between sugary drinks and obesity. In 2016, The Associated Press showed that candy makers funded a study that shows that children who eat sweets weigh less than those who do not.
"In an ideal world, probably nutrition research would be much more financed by the government," says Johns, "but the government also has a limited amount of money and has to choose the priority."