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Sugar Study Draws Attention to Food Industry’s Sour Secret

Food industries have long opened their wallets to snag a piece of the science pie

Sugar companies have gotten themselves in a sticky situation. (ktaylorg/iStock)
smithsonian.com

Sugar doesn’t taste quite so sweet today.

As Anahad O’Connor reports for The New York Times, researchers have uncovered evidence that the sugar industry used its money and influence to blame saturated fat, not sugar, as a cause of heart disease during the 1960s—a play that influenced decades of health policy as American obesity and heart disease rates surged. Though this study is the newest evidence of the industry’s apparently longstanding practice of buying biased health research, it’s certainly not the first.

The new analysis, which was published in the journal JAMA, used historical documents from archives and libraries to reconstruct the sugar industry’s interactions with three Harvard scientists throughout the 1960s. They found that the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade association that has since been renamed the Sugar Association, paid the equivalent of about $49,000 today to three scientists to conduct a literature review on scientific evidence about sugars, fats and coronary heart disease. Their investigation was eventually published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. However, the foundation apparently cherry-picked data favorable to its desired conclusion that fat, not sugar, was linked to coronary heart disease and its funding of the review was not disclosed.

That wasn’t the only time the sugar industry exerted influence on health research. As Smithsonian.com reported in 2015, the sugar lobby also had a hand in developing federal guidelines about sugar intake and cavities and successfully blocked federal studies about the links between sugar and cavities until at least the 1970s. And in 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists accused the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association (who lobby on behalf of high fructose corn syrup) of actively countering science that shows negative effects linked to consumption of added sugars. The report cited tactics like threatening to suspend funding to the World Health Organization, paying scientists to promote the idea that corn syrup and table sugar are metabolically similar, and stating that it planned to “bury the data” if study results confirmed ill effects of added sweeteners, reports Zoë Schlanger for Newsweek.

Though the food industry has long lobbied the government for favorable regulations and guidelines, writes Marion Nestle, who specializes in food studies and focuses on food policy, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In her book Food Politics, Nestle accuses the food industry of overtly “co-opting experts” and routinely providing funding to food researchers.

Indeed, research and food production have long gone together like peanut butter and jelly, with food industry employing their own experts and publishing pamphlets and materials that tout the supposed health benefits of their own foods. In recent years, however, industry ties to ostensibly independent researchers have drawn more and more scrutiny, especially after revelations that the tobacco industry worked to undermine scientific evidence about the health effects of smoking for decades.

For example, in 2014 the Associated Press uncovered candy industry ties to three researchers who wrote more than 24 papers funded by companies like Kellogg and industry associations supporting products like juice and beef. Studies about soft drinks funded by companies like Coca-Cola were found to be five times as likely to find no link between soft drinks and weight gain in a 2013 literature review. And juice giant POM Wonderful spent $35 million on studies that claimed pomegranate juice had various health benefits (claims that ultimately earned the company a Supreme Court smackdown this year.)

There’s no question that industry funding, be it from the pharmaceutical or food industries, can bias research results. Sugar’s bid to fund anti-saturated fat science had lasting ramifications, forming the basis for other research and affecting government dietary recommendations. Ultimately, consumers paid the price, consuming more and more sugary, low-fat foods and becoming more obese than ever. But there’s a way to sweeten the outlook for health research: raise non-industry funding and publish all results, even when they don’t reflect funders’ biases. Maybe that’s easier said than done—but bias-free research would sure make for a healthier meal.

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